• Marisa Guerin

The Conversation Managers Avoid

Updated: Apr 12, 2018



Marisa Guerin, PhD – January 29, 2018

Being a team leader, department manager, or group supervisor has its inspiring and strategic moments, for sure. But as long as you are managing people, not robots, there is no escaping the obligation to give performance feedback -- the conversation most managers love to avoid.


In this brief post, I’d like to suggest the power of personal values like courage, compassion, truth and respect as lifelines to managing this responsibility with integrity. This is the perspective taken in the Work and Spirit workshops for business leaders at Cranaleith Conference Center in Philadelphia.

Performance reviews are notoriously problematic. The current policy shift in many companies away from formal annual reviews to frequent informal feedback might lighten the bureaucratic burden and improve impact, but it doesn’t change the interpersonal challenge at all. If anything, the expectation of frequent coaching/feedback only ups the ante on the leader’s capacity for giving helpful guidance to employees.


Now, why would this be hard? Shouldn’t it at least be easy when the feedback is some version of “All’s well; keep up the good work?” Perhaps – but even positive messages to valued team members need to be personalized. To grow, employees need to know specifically how and why their performance is valued; and to stay motivated, they have to know that their results are appreciated. That’s a more personal and engaged conversation than a fast “atta-boy” or “atta-girl."


There’s less mystery about the challenge behind confronting problem performers; these conversations are obviously more difficult when the leader must give “change” or “exit” messages to someone who isn’t delivering what is required for success on the job.


There are many good tools for preparing and delivering these messages. I’m not going to reference them here. Instead, I’d like to go to the heart of the matter: a performance conversation is a moment in a RELATIONSHIP between two persons. One of these persons has the role responsibility to evaluate and guide the work performance of the other. It’s an unequal relationship in terms of degree of authority, but so are many other important relationships in life. There’s still room for respect and concern. If one is willing to stand in this role relationship with courage, it is an act of commitment to the people being managed and to the organization itself.


In many workplace cultures, leaders abdicate this responsibility. Instead of accepting the reality of their role, they relate as a colleague, as a friend, as a co-worker. That’s not surprising -- the manager, especially one who is newly appointed, may be ambivalent about having this level of responsibility and power. As well, the duties and privileges that come with a managerial role may cause subordinates to feel resentful or envious.


If managers are anxious about giving negative performance feedback, the defensive maneuver is to

enter the conversation with some degree of emotional distance -- a clinical, business-like stance. It is a stance of apparent professional objectivity; but the dispassionate demeanor is in fact protective of the manager, helping him or her to avoid triggering or facing emotional reactions such as anger, hurt, or fear.


The alternative is paradoxically more powerful. To speak truth with empathy means the manager needs a certain level of capacity to tolerate painful feelings, both within him or herself, and also as expressed by others. Making a respectful, caring connection with the person being reviewed AND being clear and constructive in the feedback enables both persons to feel integrity in the dialogue. It is inherently compassionate to approach another as a person. This is as true for the ones receiving a positive message as it is for those who are hearing that they need to change.


When in doubt: remind yourself that preparation, honesty and genuine empathy convey messages that affirm the human dignity of each person in this performance relationship -- on behalf of the greater good of the organization and its mission.

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