Faked Out by a Direct Report? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

A long-time employee I really liked and respected recently left for another opportunity. I tried to keep her but couldn’t offer her enough money, so I gave her an excellent reference. The whole team was sad, and off she went with a fond farewell.

Surprisingly, while training her replacement, I was stunned to find an avalanche of work never done, errors concealed, and files in a state of chaos. I always knew she was a little slapdash, but I had no idea about the extent of her disorganization and deceptions.

I am ashamed and embarrassed in front of my employees that I allowed this to happen on my watch. I feel I should have known this was happening—perhaps I could have worked with her to fix the problems. Or perhaps I would have fired her years ago. Somehow she successfully kept me in the dark. I am tempted to call her new employer and rat her out for the phony she is—that’s how mad I am. How can I fix this? —Disappointed and Mad

Dear Disappointed and Mad,

There is really nothing quite like that sudden surprise of the rug being yanked out from under you, is there? One minute you are living in one reality and the next, everything is shifted. There is actually a neurological response when you expect one thing and you get a different, negative outcome. Neurochemicals associated with the flight-or-flight response are released—cortisol and adrenaline—and it feels like a car alarm going off in your brain.

So, let’s take a big step back, give the car alarm a chance to stop blaring in your head, and make a plan.

First, get a handle on your feelings. Shame, regret, and humiliation feel poisonous. Once you get a negative thought looping in your brain, it can be really hard to interrupt the pattern. There are a couple of excellent techniques that have been shown through experiments in social neuroscience to be very effective at loosening the grip of negative emotions.

  • Labeling. It’s a misconception that talking about a difficult experience will only rub salt in the wound. This is only true if you ruminate—revisit the events with no tools to transform them for yourself. One way to make over the experience is to articulate how events made you feel and label them. You can do this with a therapist, a sympathetic HR professional, or a friend who is a good listener. You have already started to do it by writing your letter—a good first step. The more detailed you can get and the more specifically you can label how you feel, the less of a sting you will feel over time. You will gain some dominion over your experience instead of feeling like it has power over you. You will turn off the car alarm.
  • Distancing techniques. Another tool to diminish the emotional turmoil you are dealing with is to tell yourself—in the third person—the story of the events that happened. Tell it as if it happened to someone else. For example, you might start the story, “I once knew this person who was betrayed by a trusted employee. Here’s what happened. . .” It may sound hokey, but it really works to help you get some perspective.
  • Re-appraisal or re-framing. Right now you are taking all the responsibility for this debacle, which is actually kind of great. Many people would place all of the blame on the employee. So in this case, I would encourage you to take your newfound labels and your little bit of distance and use them to look at your situation and see how you might reframe the way you are interpreting events. You might consider how the environment in your workplace culture contributed to the situation. Or what about the part the employee played in the situation—she must have been charming, and a bit of a con. Con women are successful because they are masterful at diverting attention. You are not the first person to be hoodwinked!

These techniques, by the way, are useful for dealing with all kinds of deeply felt negative emotions that are getting in your way.

Once you have some equanimity about what happened, you can figure out what there is to learn from your mistake. I am betting this will never happen to you again. From a management standpoint, you will want to look at the extent to which you have absolute certainty that every single one of your people has the competence and commitment to do all of their tasks. Ken Blanchard always says that when people are starting on new tasks or goals, the manager has to start out giving lots of clear direction and not let up on the attention until there is ample evidence that the employee can be left on their own. It may be worth looking to see where this might be happening elsewhere, not to mention reviewing your performance management practices.

You are going to have to forgive your former employee and yourself. Hyrum Smith, known primarily as a time management guru and inventor for The Franklin Planner, has a wonderful point of view on forgiveness. He says that while most people say you have to forgive and forget, he says you actually have to forgive and remember, and then decide it doesn’t matter anymore. I have found this concept to be extremely useful. Remember, first learn from it. Then, when you are ready, decide it is no longer important.

Finally, under no circumstances should you contact the new employer. You would be breaking way too many HR laws and it’s just not worth it. Revenge is so tempting, but succumbing to it wouldn’t help you grow—it would only add to the list of things you feel ashamed of. The best revenge is to get smarter and stronger.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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