About fifteen years ago, I was sitting in the lobby of a building at a client site, waiting for an appointment.
An employee walked into the lobby and started a conversation with the security guard. It seemed they knew each other well and the she either didn’t notice me or have any care about her conversation being overheard.
They exchanged a few pleasantries and then she said this:
When I got my job here, I was so excited.
She went onto describe that she had worked really hard to land the position and did her best to make an amazing impression in her first year. She continued:
At the end of the year, I received my performance review: meets expectations.
She told the guard that while she was disappointed she hadn’t gotten a higher overall rating, she recognized that perhaps there was more she could have done.
So the second year, I busted my butt.
She went onto describe how she volunteered for assignments, took tons of initiative, worked late hours — and several other key factors that aligned with getting an “exceed expectations” on the next review.
The second year’s rating:
I could hear the pain in her voice as she recounted what a difficult blow that was for her at the time. Not only did the review come back the same, but apparently there wasn’t any acknowledgment that she had done anything different.
After I worked through the anger, I decided on a different tactic.
She went onto describe that in the third year, she basically gave up.
I came in late some days. I left early more than I should have. I stopped volunteering to help. Basically, I just did what I had to do — and nothing else.
The third year’s rating?
It became apparent from the context of the dialogue that this had been years ago. She continued:
So that’s when I realized that I could basically just show up here and do the bare minimum. I’ve got three years to do until I’m fully vested in the pension — and then I’m out of here.
I never saw the woman again and have no idea if she made it the last three years.
I went onto do work with the organization and, without revealing any identifying details (it was a large enterprise), later shared this story in some of the training I facilitated for managers. The reaction from most people was similar:
What an awful attitude to show up with for your entire career.
I agree. That was also the reaction I had the day I heard the conversation.
But I think it misses the leadership lesson.
There are always two sides to every story. I have no doubt that if we tracked down the manager who gave those early reviews, we’d hear a lot more detail that would change the narrative.
Yet, while perhaps an extreme example, the story lined up pretty well with what I heard from other employees in the organization at that time. Regardless of the work quality, there were many examples of people who felt they were ignored.
If we take her story at face value, she didn’t start her career with such a negative attitude. Apparently, she came in wanting to perform, but the culture there eventually taught her otherwise.
As we’ve discussed on Coaching for Leaders many times, the best managers balance a care for people with coaching that helps highlight what people do well and helps them get better when they fall short.
Less effective are the managers who only give praise — but are fearful to be candid.
And even the managers who only criticize — well, at least they are paying attention. I had a manager once when I was working a part-time job who only criticized. And I still learned lot from him — mostly in an effort to avoid getting criticized.
All those things are better than the worst possible way to manage: to not really say much of anything.
If that might be you, I invite you to begin saying something. Regardless on how eloquent you are, you’ll likely be doing better than if you said nothing at all.