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Taking a Balanced View

When he first joined ETI as a consultant, Chad (not his real name) dazzled the management team with an extraordinary technical prowess and an undying commitment to his work and to customer service. Chad’s manager, Sharon, sang his praises to the skies and offered abundant recognition during presentations and company meetings. I hummed the tune as well, and publicly singled out his stellar work. However, amid the choruses of applause and acclamation, Sharon noticed that other consultants seemed uncomfortable when ETI praised Chad’s work.

When he first joined ETI as a consultant, Chad (not his real name) dazzled the management team with an extraordinary technical prowess and an undying commitment to his work and to customer service. Chad’s manager, Sharon, sang his praises to the skies and offered abundant recognition during presentations and company meetings. I hummed the tune as well, and publicly singled out his stellar work. However, amid the choruses of applause and acclamation, Sharon noticed that other consultants seemed uncomfortable when ETI praised Chad’s work. At first she assumed rivalry or jealously was to blame, but then she detected a pattern.

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Sharon noted that ETI customers consistently ran into technical problems and became discontented when another consultant assumed one of Chad’s accounts. Initially, Sharon believed the customers simply preferred working with Chad because of his high standards and top-quality work. As she dug further, however, she found that the replacement consultants boasted solid track records with other happy customers. The larger problem, she finally discovered, was Chad’s failure to document his work on accounts. When he passed the baton to another consultant, he provided no perspective or history and therefore made it all too easy for his colleagues to make unnecessary mistakes that frustrated our customers.

Sharon strongly encouraged Chad to accurately document his work and to brief his successors on accounts. He didn’t. Consequently Sharon stopped praising Chad with such fervor and frequency. He soon became openly critical of his peers’ skills, creating even more animosity between team members. Eventually, Chad complained that ETI was not sufficiently appreciating or recognizing his work.

Sharon told Chad he was very talented, but he needed to work better with his team. The situation rapidly deteriorated until Chad began making derogatory remarks to customers about his peers and about the company. Finally, Sharon terminated Chad, but not before he sent me several scathing phone and email messages. In retrospect, Sharon and I discerned that Chad’s intense desire for individual recognition overrode his commitment to the team and to the customer. In many ways, our rabid praise fed this negative character trait.

However awkward and painful the situation became, our run-in with Chad taught me a great lesson about maintaining a balanced view of an employee’s performance during the good times and during the bad. Providing constructive criticism is an acquired skill that runs the risk of upsetting a valued employee. We would all rather praise than criticize because it’s emotionally easier. But providing constructive criticism is also an essential skill for any manager who wishes to avoid a messy termination like Chad’s. Even when an employee is worthy of praise, I believe a manager must maintain a balanced outlook and act accordingly.

I believe the following insights could have salvaged and repaired ETI’s relationship with Chad had Sharon and I achieved a balanced outlook in time:

A gunslinger isn’t a hero, and a hero isn’t a leader.
Gunslingers are extremely talented, but they ride alone. As a manager, my goal is to foster heroes and new leaders. When a manager jumps too soon to publicly praise individual excellence, he or she risks inflating a gunslinger’s already bloated sense of importance. Heroes earn the respect of their peers by demonstrating skill and courage, and by respecting the group’s values and goals. While leaders are often heroic, they must focus more on coordinating the hearts and wills of their people, rather than recognizing individual feats of distinction. In order to transform a gunslinger into a hero, I suggest that a manager must make the team’s success a crucial indication of the individual’s success.

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Praise the work, not the person.
Even the most modest individual appreciates praise. Therefore, when managing an outstanding performer, it’s only natural to reward the employee with public recognition. After all, talk is cheap — it costs the company very little to bestow this reward. In addition, praise reiterates a company’s standards of performance and excellence. Praise is a valuable tool, but it’s also dangerous when a manager praises an individual rather than that individual’s outstanding work. Instead of saying, “Chad pulled off another miracle” or “Chad proved he’s a superstar,” Sharon and I should have announced that “The project at Company X was difficult and challenging. Thanks to Chad’s commitment and his team’s support, ETI has enjoyed great success.” By praising Chad’s work rather than stroking his ego, we could have contributed due recognition without making Chad feel superior to his peers.

Seek to present a balanced view.
When an employee is churning out outstanding work on a consistent basis, it may seem petty or counterproductive to point out his or her limitations. But as a manager, I feel it is my responsibility to help my employees master and overcome their weaknesses – which often include hearing and addressing criticism. Again, I make a point to criticize the work rather than the person, therefore inspiring the employee to live up to his or her potential by working on a few key areas. In this case, Sharon or I should have conducted a thorough investigation the first time we detected a problem with the consultants assuming Chad’s accounts.

There’s no telling whether Chad would not have changed his behavior if we had we employed these principles. But we can deduce that Sharon’s criticism, following months of effusive praise, must have been especially crushing to Chad. Had she consistently presented him with a balanced view of his performance and based his reviews on the performance of his entire team, Sharon may have motivated Chad to improve his performance. In addition, Sharon would have appeared a more impartial manager to other employees.

I have repeatedly made these mistakes, and I have found that it takes great discipline to temper my enthusiasm for an employee who is performing exceptionally. In my next column, I will examine techniques for offering constructive criticism that inspires employees to listen and to act positively.

by Katherine Hammer

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