This weekend, my six-year-old finally asked me the dreaded question, "Mom, is there really an Easter bunny?"
There I was, stuck on the horns of a dilemma. To be honest, I'd never felt completely comfortable misleading my son, yet it was wonderful to see him hugging the man-disguised-as-the-Easter-bunny at egg hunts and to strategize about ways to catch him delivering the basket. I loved revisiting how magical the world appeared when I thought the Easter bunny was real. So, until now, I'd justified trading a little deception for some short-lived magic.
Performance Counseling is Not for Wimps
If coming clean about the Easter bunny can cause a grown woman to break into a sweat, imagine the anxiety managers often feel about discussing poor performance. Let's face it; sometimes it's hard to tell the truth, especially when it's negative and most especially when you actually like the person you need to give negative feedback to. This is one reason why incompetent or ill-equipped employees don't get fired.
Managers Held Hostage
Part of the problem is that some managers believe they have two options; a) ignore the problem and spare the employee's feelings (and their own), or b) devastate the employee (and stress themselves out) by lowering the boom. Few of us want to hurt the feelings of people we like, which is why option A is so seductive.
However, there's also option C. Rather than let ourselves be held hostage by our empathy, why not use it as the foundation for a frank discussion? "Susan, I really like you and very much want for you to succeed. Here are the barriers I see standing in your way . . . How can I help you get your performance up to par?"
Communicating your genuine liking for the employee is a great way to assure the employee that both of you are on the same team and still get the reality of his/her performance across. And, should the employee fail to improve, it's less likely that s/he will take a termination personally.
The Easter Bunny Revisited
Back to the Easter Bunny. Well, after sitting quietly for about 30 seconds after her question, I gave him a soul-searching look and said, "Would you really want to know?"
She was silent for a minute and then, looking at me squarely in the eyes, said, "Yes, I do. I kind of know already, mom; I just want to hear it from you." So, I fessed up, feeling a little sad and a little relieved. And, she looked just as I'd imagined she would - a little sad and a little older.
Telling the truth can be difficult but it does have its rewards. Ideally, the primary objective of a performance improvement / disciplinary conversation is to gain the employee's agreement to change behavior and return to fully acceptable performance. Just as telling your child a difficult truth helps build a foundation of trust and credibility. Even when the parent isn't ready to let the Easter Bunny go.