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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Here's a True Story of What Happens When Bosses Don't Give Honest Feedback

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Bob was one of those instantly likable people who make going to work a pleasure. He was a kind, funny, caring, and supportive colleague. What’s more, he came to me with a stellar resume and great references. He seemed to be an A-plus hire, and I was thrilled to be his manager.

There was just one problem: His work was terrible. He’d been working for weeks on a project. But when I reviewed the document he’d been working on so diligently, I was shocked to discover that it was totally incoherent—a kind of word salad. And thinking back, I then realized that Bob also knew his work wasn’t good enough—the shame in his eye and the apology in his smile when he handed it over to me were unmistakable

Let’s stop right here for a second. If you’re a manager, you know already that this was a hinge moment in our relationship.

Bob’s work wasn’t even close to good enough. We were a small company, struggling to get on our feet, and we had zero bandwidth to redo his work or pick up his slack. I knew this at the time, and yet, when I met with him, I couldn’t bring myself to address the problem. I heard myself tell Bob that the work was a good start and that I’d help him finish. He smiled uncertainly and left.

What happened? First, I liked Bob, and I didn’t want to come down too hard on him. He’d looked sufficiently nervous during the meeting when we reviewed his document that I feared he might even cry. Because everyone liked him so much, I also worried that if he did cry, everyone would think I was a horrible person.

Second, unless his resume and references were bogus, he’d done great work in the past. Maybe he’d been distracted by something at home or was unused to our way of doing things. Whatever the reason, I convinced myself that he’d surely return to the performance level that had gotten him the job.

Third, I could fix the document myself for now, and that would be faster than teaching him how to re-write it.

Let’s first deal with how my actions (or lack thereof) affected Bob. Remember, he knew his work wasn’t good, and so my false praise just messed with his mind. It allowed him to deceive himself into thinking that he could continue along the same course—which he did. By failing to confront the problem, I’d removed the incentive for him to try harder and lulled him into thinking he’d be fine.

It’s brutally hard to tell people when they’re screwing up. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings—you’re human, after all—and you don’t want that person or the rest of the team to think you’re a jerk. Plus, you’ve been told since you learned to talk, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ Now all of a sudden, it’s your job to say it. You’ve got to undo a lifetime of training.

After this first encounter with Bob, I kept making the same mistake over and over for 10 months. As you probably know, for every piece of subpar work you accept, for every missed deadline you let slip, you begin to feel resentment, and then anger. You no longer just think the work is bad: You think the person is bad. This makes it harder to have an even-keeled conversation. You start to avoid talking to the person at all.

And of course, the impact of this didn’t stop with Bob: Others on the team wondered why I accepted such poor work, but, following my lead, they too tried to cover for him. They would fix mistakes he’d made and do or redo his work, usually when they should’ve been sleeping.

Covering for people is sometimes necessary for a short period of time—say if somebody is going through a crisis. But when it goes on too long it starts to take a toll. People whose work had been exceptional started to get sloppy. We missed key deadlines.

Knowing why Bob’s colleagues were late, I didn’t give them too hard a time. Then they began to wonder if I knew the difference between great and mediocre; perhaps I didn’t even take the missed deadlines seriously. As is often the case when people are not sure the quality of what they’re doing is appreciated, the results began to suffer, and so did morale.

As I faced the prospect of losing my team, I realized I couldn’t put it off any longer. I invited Bob to have coffee with me. He expected to have a nice chat, but instead, after a few false starts, I fired him. Now, we were both huddled miserably over our muffins and lattes.

After an excruciating silence, Bob pushed his chair back, metal screeching on marble, and looked me straight in the eye and asked:

Why didn’t you tell me?

As that question was rolling around in my mind with no good answer, he asked me a second question: “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought you all cared about me!”

It was the low point of my career. I’d made a whole series of mistakes, and Bob was taking the fall. Not only was my earlier praise a head-fake, I’d never given Bob any criticism. I’d also never asked him to give me feedback, which might have allowed him to talk things through and perhaps find a solution.

Worst of all, I’d failed to create a culture in which Bob’s peers would’ve done him the courtesy of telling him when he was going off the rails. The team’s cohesion was cracking, and it showed in our results. Lack of either helpful praise or criticism had absolutely disastrous effects on the team and our outcomes—and unfortunately, this resulted in my company failing soon after.

Giving feedback is hard, but you need to do it if you care about both your team’s success, as well as your own. I may not be able to turn back the clock and tell Bob the truth, but you still have time to make the decision to be an honest and open manager to all your direct reports. And I hope you do.

If you need an extra boost of confidence having this conversation, this article and this article are both great places to start.

The most important thing to remember is that this conversation is never easy to have, but it’s worth it.

This excerpt was adapted from the book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, which hit bookshelves March 2017. It has been republished here with permission.