What a fine line there is between being understanding and empathetic, and using those same attributes as excuses to avoid saying that which needs to be said. If you are consistently underperforming in your job because of family or personal issues and I am your boss, should I talk with you about the problems your underperformance is causing the company or should I look for other, less direct ways of addressing your non performance (like reassigning you)? Here’s a more subtle example; if you have repeatedly demonstrated your loyalty to me and the company through heroic acts of service and dedication but now, over time, the company has outgrown its need for your direct, forceful style, do I confront you on the impacts of your behavior or avoid doing so for fear of hurting your feelings?
The answers to both of these questions are obvious – a good boss, of course, confronts the problem directly with the employee. But it’s not that simple, is it? The longer our history with employees who have helped the company “grow up” the harder it is for many managers to deal directly and openly with the situation. I’ve seen leaders who have no problem dealing with emotionally uncomfortable conversations with customers or clients defer, avoid, redirect and downright deny issues with their closest or most tenured employees.
I have lost count of the number of careers, relationships, or teams who have been negatively impacted by employees whose behavior or performance has not been dealt with honestly and directly. I’m for giving these people what they deserve, the truth, even if the truth hurts. How? By describing the impact of their behavior or attitude is having. By setting limits over what is acceptable and what isn’t. By reminding them that they have a lot more capacity for contributing than they are currently using. Let’s give this group a little more credit; most of the time, they can sense they aren’t meeting objectives or goals. If they knew how to be more successful, they would be doing so. They need help, and they need direct, honest feedback. Caretaking them just prolongs the illusion that everything is fine when it isn’t, and they know it.
The saying…”the truth shall set you free, but first, it will make you miserable”, reinforces what I am talking about. But even better would be this modification to the saying: “You’re obviously miserable, so let me tell you the truth about things as I see them, so you can set yourself free.” I have come to believe that caretaking isn’t compassionate, it borders on being cruel. Compassion begins with the truth. The art of feedback and the character trait of compassion make for a powerful combination.