Afraid You Might Be a Jerk? Ask Madeleine

A businessman in a suit and tie stands near a mirrorDear Madeleine,

I am afraid I am a jerk.

I currently have twelve direct reports and I swear, every single one of them is deficient. My wife is so sick of my complaining about what numbskulls they all are, she actually said “Have you ever considered that the problem might be you?”

And honestly, I never have, until now.

I am constantly disappointed in my people’s work. Some of them have worked for me a long time—I don’t know what their excuse is. Five of them are newbies who are flailing around, turning work in with spelling errors, failing to go the extra mile. I am wondering if these people even went to college. I am ready to scrap the whole team and start over, which of course is wildly unrealistic. But I have to do something because this group is out of control. Is it me? How can I fix this?

Afraid of Being a Jerk

Dear Afraid,

Well, you may be a jerk. I would need more detail to know for sure, because I don’t know what you actually say to your people or how you set them up for their projects. But let’s look at what you might do to turn the tide and increase the standards for your work team, and we’ll see if it makes a difference.

I think your team might be suffering from a lack of clarity around your expectations. Perhaps you have been doing your job for so long that you forget there was a time when you didn’t know what you know.

At Blanchard, we have a story we tell around setting goals. The boss asks the employee to bring him a rock. Back comes the worker with a nice big rock, the size of grapefruit, kind of rough on the outside. “No,” says the boss, “I want a smaller, smoother rock.” And now here comes our worker with a smaller, smoother rock. The boss throws up his hands and says, “No, no, no, it needs to be black! And smoother than this.” The frustrated employee goes looking for something that fits the bill and comes back with a lovely, smooth, black, small rock. The boss loses his temper and raises his voice, saying, “Well, now that’s too small!”

The question is, how clear are you when you set expectations, especially with the newbies? They really may have no idea what you want, even if you think it is obvious. You need to paint a detailed picture of what a good job looks like, and maybe even provide an example. Then—and this is the step most people skip—you need to ask them to repeat the instructions back to you, to make sure you expressed what you wanted in a way they understood. It can be surprising to compare what you think you said with what someone actually heard. If the instructions are complex, write them down—or even better, ask the employee to do it and then review the written instructions together. This is one way to avoid confusion from the beginning. You’ll want to ask to review drafts of work along the way before the deadline so you can provide course correction. If you want them to go the extra mile, explain in no uncertain terms what an example of that might be.

You can also be super clear from the start that you expect everyone to review their work and correct typos before putting anything in front of you. A lot of people don’t know the technique of reading through work out loud to catch errors that spell check doesn’t always catch. Or putting a slideshow presentation into Presentation mode for review—it’s somehow easier to catch mistakes in Presentation mode. Teach these techniques to your people and impress upon them how important it is to you.

What other expectations do you have? Think them through carefully, articulate them accurately, put them in writing, and share them with your people. They really won’t know unless you tell them. You have to accept that just because you think people should know about something before they get to you, they may not. So teach them. And make it crystal clear.

With your longtime employees, I think the only way you can find out what is going on is to sit down with each one of them in private and ask. You can tell them you are confused by the drop in performance and express concern. Ask them what you might do differently to support them in getting their standards back up to par. Be prepared to hear some feedback about yourself as a boss, and also some things that might surprise you. For the longer term folks who have been great performers in the past, you owe them that.

The longer you manage people, the easier it is to forget that people can’t read your mind. Make the implicit explicit. Be clear, consistent, and generous with feedback. And if you do it all kindly, you won’t be a jerk.

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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