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I never considered myself an especially gifted manager of people. But every once in awhile I did something right. This week’s story is about one of those days a few years ago.
I had a project review meeting with a junior manager in a corporate department that supported my team. He was an absolute top performer — the kind most managers dream of having work for them. Although he didn’t report to me directly, I worked with him often enough that I took an interest in him. At the end of the meeting, as I always did, I asked him how he was doing personally.
“Not good,” he replied. “My wife wants me to quit the company.”
I knew exactly what the problem was. He’d been overworked for months. When his department reported directly to me, there were three managers doing his job. After a restructuring, a corporate function took over his department and eliminated two of the positions, leaving him to do all the work himself. Each month when I met with him, I asked how things were going, and he would admit that the hours were unbearable. I would offer to help him, but he would always say, “No thanks. After project ‘ABC’ things will get better.” But then project ABC would come and go, and things still weren’t any better. The next time, it was the same answer.
But here we were, six months later, and he was admitting to me that, in fact, this had been going on for almost a year. His wife had given birth to their second child two months earlier, and since then he could count on one hand the nights he’d gotten home before bedtime.
When I asked him what his manager was doing to remedy the situation, he said, You know, I really don’t think they care. They don’t value what I do here. All they seem to care about is inventing new methods for us to use, and we don’t even have time to use the tools we have today. They don’t have the budget to hire any help for me because they’re spending all their money on development.”
You know, I really don’t think they care. They don’t value what I do here. . .
“All they seem to care about is inventing new methods for us to use, and we don’t even have time to use the tools we have today. They don’t have the budget to hire any help for me because they’re spending all their money on development.”
After letting him vent a bit more, I reminded him of my monthly offers to help, and his monthly refusals. (I could tell he viewed asking for help as an admission of failure.) I said, “Can I get you to agree now that things aren’t going to get any better, and that it’s time to accept my help?” He agreed, and the first thing I did was spend several minutes telling him how valuable an employee he was to this company; how strong a performer I thought he was, and all the reasons why; how bright a future I saw ahead of him; how I would be honored to have him fill any position in my department, now or in the future; and how lucky any manager would be to have him in his group. He looked like he hadn’t heard those words in a while.
Next, I told him all the different ways I could help, starting by talking to his current boss to get her help. And if that didn’t work, she might not have enough budget to afford to hire him an assistant, but I did. Or I could pay one of our suppliers to step in and pick up the slack. Or I could divide up some of his work across a handful of people in my department. Or I could help him prioritize his work and choose some things to simply not do anymore. Or all of the above!
We agreed on two of those solutions to start with the following Monday.
The last thing I did was give him some tough feedback. “As sorry as I am that this happened, this isn’t entirely your boss’s fault. Some of the responsibility lies with you. Seriously, shame on you as a manager, a husband, and a father for letting this go on for so long. You should have had the good sense to ask for help when you needed it, or at least have the humility to accept it when it was offered.” I finished with,
You’re far too valuable to this company and your family to put your physical and emotional health under this kind of stress. Don’t let this happen again.”
He shook my hand as he left, smiled at me, and thanked me in the most genuine way. I could tell by his words and the look on his face that he felt good knowing he was valued and cared. He felt relieved to know that management was actually doing something to fix his problem. And he felt wiser having learned a valuable lesson that would make him a better employee, a better husband, and a better father.
When done right, even telling someone they made a mistake can be viewed as a gift. Let’s see how that was done in the story above.
- First, it started with positive feedback. That opens your audience to listening to you. Starting with negative feedback shuts people down. The positive feedback also builds your credibility with the listener, so they’re likely to believe the negative feedback you give him. After all, if you’re smart enough to see how brilliant they are in one area, just maybe you could be right about one of their deficiencies.
- Second, I asked if he could agree that there was a problem and that it wouldn’t get better without being addressed. If your listener doesn’t agree there’s a problem, your advice for how to fix it will fall on deaf ears.
- Third, I asked what was already being done about the problem. In this case, what his boss was doing about it. Even better would be to ask what the person is doing to address the problem themselves. You don’t want to duplicate any effort. Putting the responsibility of solving the issue with the person in the best position to solve it is always a good idea.
- Fourth, it included an offer to help, not just advice. Advice is good. But tangible help is better. Moreover, there were many options offered for help, and the listener got to pick which ones he wanted to take advantage of.
- Fifth, it made it clear that this situation is unacceptable because he is too valuable to let this kind of thing happen. Most feedback feels like being told, “You’re not smart enough to do this right.” That kind of feedback tears down the receiver and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being told “You’re too valuable to let this happen” is more likely to evoke the change in behavior you’re after.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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