Duck and Cover Redux

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What people choose to wear to work can be fascinating. I don’t think it’s a particularly vivid window to the soul, but it does leave some interesting clues.

At most tech companies, the t-shirt seems to be the uniform of choice. It offers a chance for the wearer to fly the company flag, to illuminate their personal passions, or occasionally test the boundaries of good taste.

Microsoft was no exception, but we also seemed to attract some particularly adventurous types. There was one manager who didn’t wear shoes. Ever. Just trundled around in bare feet. To meetings, in the cafeteria, even in the rare Seattle snow storm. On days like that, bare feet seemed like a particularly bold, if painful, choice.

Then there was the guy who only wore lederhosen. Yeah, really. The leather alpine shorts with intricate needlework on the bibs. I never was sure if it was drawn from cultural heritage or was just a fashion choice. But he wore them every day, year-round.

There were a rare few who decided all this was just a bit too casual. One of them worked for me. I’ll call him Skip. Skip wore a well-tailored sport coat and tie every day. It was his own bold choice, one that indeed got noticed among the t-shirts and jeans. He seemed confident of his little protest against the machine. It was perhaps the only rebellious feature of a guy who was generally pretty quiet and thoughtful. Someone who liked to let his work do most of the talking.

So, it was quite a shock one day, when I found myself in a one-on-one meeting with Skip, and there he was livid, yelling at me, red-faced, and even going so far as to hurl my stapler at my head. I had surprised him with some bad news, and he was – to put it mildly – not taking it very well.

It took a few days for both of us to recover, but it stayed with me forever. I realized that the problem that day was not Skip’s but mine. And THAT’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

As we head into the new year, for many it means another round of performance reviews. This seems like a great time to reprise one of my favorite episodes. This is Episode 227 — A Redux of Duck and Cover.

Skip was a bright and talented program manager. He had been with Microsoft for probably a decade, a lifetime at such a young company, or in the tech industry. He had worked on some of the company’s seminal products, and by all accounts done great work. He had been rewarded well, in the coin at the time, plenty of stock options.

When Skip came to me, I was leading, among other things, the team responsible for supporting the Visual C++ compiler inside the company. It was the most important tool that the teams making Windows, and Office, and every other program, used to build their multi-billion-dollar products.

The external customers for Visual C++ were some of the nerdiest geeks on the planet. Obsessed with the most minute detail of every bit, byte, and microsecond, and yet oddly charming. Though persnickety, they were largely big fans of the product. It was amazing what they could create with it.

Our internal customers, on the other hand, were exponentially more obsessed with the details, and far more demanding. Because my group was internal, and substantially further down on the company pecking order, we were ridden hard. Every performance issue, and every strange error in their product, somehow was our fault. It seemed a thankless job until you stepped back a bit and realized that we built the structural foundation for a flourishing company zooming towards the top of the Fortune 500. That essentially every product leaving the company passed through our tool. That helped to put it in perspective.

I hired Skip thinking his long tenure and many contacts in the company would help with these difficult internal relationships. He and I both fully realized, he was tired. He’d worked hard for many years and didn’t need a huge challenge. But he was willing to make a go of it and I was sure he could help. I tasked him with a sizeable list of things to handle and checked in periodically.

Over time, I came to worry that perhaps Skip was showing signs of the dreaded RV lifestyle. And I don’t mean the travel trailer world. All too common in any company that grants stock options, Rest and Vest is where people seek out a quiet corner and try to run out the clock on their vesting schedule. “If I can only make it to next year,” they think, “I’ll rake in a fortune in stock options.” They generally live in fear of being discovered, and often lie low, resting on the laurels of their past successes.

I wasn’t sure this was the case for Skip, but when it came time for his performance review, I saw he hadn’t made much progress on many items on his list. He’d picked off some of the easy ones, but not even touched several others. I eventually settled on a written review, and a review score, that was pretty tough.

When it came time to meet with Skip, you already know it was a difficult meeting. Though I didn’t directly accuse him, he was insulted at my insinuation that he might be restin’ and vestin’. But he was most upset at his review score, he insisted it was the lowest he’d ever received.

On a side note, review scores – and pretty much anything that tries to boil people down to a number – are heinous. We’ll talk more about that in a future episode.

The more we talked, the angrier Skip got. He began turning red, and raising his voice, something I’d never seen. He got up and paced around. He eventually picked up the stapler off my desk and began fiddling with it. When it finally became clear I wasn’t going to change the review, he actually threw it at me.

We both froze. Neither could believe what just happened. He quickly left my office, and then the building. He didn’t return for a couple of days.

I’m not sure what Skip was thinking during those days off, but I know they were very hard days for me. Even when I was firing people for a living, I had not seen much, if any, physical violence. I played the meeting back in my head many times.

The thing was, it wasn’t that the review was wrong, or even the review score. I was quite sure that, though perhaps blunt, it was honest, and fair. Compared with peers, or by any objective standard, he had accomplished very little. He’d avoided the hard work.

What was so wrong was the way I presented it. In the lead up to that meeting, I had given Skip little indication of how poor I felt his performance was. We’d met several times, and I had let him skate, not questioning his progress, or pushing him to get things done. I had certainly thought about it, after those meetings. But when we talked, I’d held my dismay inside, mostly to avoid conflict.

Had I telegraphed any of my disappointment in those prior meetings, surely Skip wouldn’t have been so surprised at that review. It wouldn’t have been hard. I didn’t need to directly confront him, although that perhaps would have been the most honest approach. Even some almost passive aggressive comments like “oh, is that all?” or “how about working on this one?” would have helped. And if I’d done it in sufficient number, those would have been enough to explain my review. But I had chickened out on even that.

To be fair, a great employee would have owned up to his own poor performance. He would have been disappointed in his own progress and admitted it in our prior meetings. Perhaps promising to do better. But that’s asking a lot, and I’ve rarely seen that kind of open self-reflection. Especially on issues that reflect on one’s own performance review.

In any case, the review meeting was a guaranteed disaster before it started. Skip was going to be surprised, and there was no way I could have said anything in that meeting to prevent it. Perhaps I could have cut off the stapler hurling through some rhetorical slight-of-hand, but the meeting was a train wreck from the start. And it was mostly my fault.

When Skip finally returned to work, we eventually did have a constructive conversation, and he admitted he wasn’t doing very well. After a few more months of trying to improve, he left the company.

But for me, the impact of that confrontation, and my failure to avert it, lived long after.

That meeting, and decades of subsequent observations, have led me to one of my most steadfast rules:

  • No job action, good or bad, should come as a surprise. To either party.

Whether you’re giving them a terrible review or a wonderful raise, demoting them or promoting them, and especially reprimanding or firing them, whatever action you take with an employee should feel inevitable. In the days or weeks leading up to an action, the escalating concern or praise should rise to a crescendo that culminates in the meeting where it happens. The signs should be clear, and the actual event should not be a surprise.

I get asked often if the same is true even when the tables are turned. Absolutely. As an employee, you too should telegraph your intentions. Want a promotion? Act like that new job, take on bigger responsibilities, prove you can do it. By the time the promotion happens, both you and your manager will be ready.

Thinking about leaving? Bring up specific things that are making you dissatisfied. Make sure your boss knows you’re unhappy. Don’t whine, and certainly don’t threaten. But when you quit, it too, shouldn’t be a surprise.

This simple rule has stood the test of time for me. In the workplace, no surprises.

I admit, I didn’t arrive to this realization through just that one incident. It was a series of meetings over years where I saw the look of surprise on someone’s face and realized how counterproductive it can be. People don’t respond thoughtfully to a shock, and it rarely gets the desired results. I started to recognize the look, and soft-pedal – even backtrack – in real time. Then I eventually learned to not get myself in those situations in the first place.

I came to see that, in the case of bad news, the ideal job action conversation should feature the employee with their head hung low and their eyes on the floor, expecting the consequences they’ve long known were coming. The role of the manager in that situation is not to “be the bad guy” but rather to follow through with a simple promise: actions have consequences. You both know it’s coming, today’s the day.

With good news, the meeting certainly can be joyous and invigorating. But the employee should be feeling some sense of “finally”. Here too, it should be a culmination and fulfilling of a promise. Both the manager and employee should be feeling confident that it is well-deserved. Maybe even a little overdue.

Surely there are exceptions. When an event is so heinous that it requires immediate action, and maybe a call to the police, clearly warning is unnecessary. But even then, it’s not really a surprise when you fire someone in those situations. They did something terrible, you fired them, no surprise.

On the other side, there are many who argue, there’s nothing like surprising an employee with a bonus, a day off, or some other perk. But for most things in life, I’ve found that the anticipation is often far more delicious than the treat itself. You can get a lot of employee goodwill with the lead up to a positive event. Long before it actually happens. I say, use it.

From an organization’s perspective, most policy manuals contain language that support this No Surprises rule. But it’s usually in the most convoluted and legalist way. Many companies insist on a series of escalating “notes to the file” before firing. Most union contracts include a certain number of formal warnings, prior to the job action. This “No Surprises rule” is the ultimate reason why.

On their face these policies are designed to prevent legal action, to ward off a lawsuit over a random act of vengeance or prejudice. But further down, they’re based on the time-proven fact that managers don’t like to give bad news. That without written proof, nobody knows if you’ve actually had the tough conversation. So, they codify it into some convoluted, clumsy policy that often includes a form in triplicate that gets entered into the personnel file.

This over-the-top formality, though, turns the conversation that should have been had, into a job action in itself. That form, and its consequences, becomes the problem. It shouldn’t come as a surprise either. So we’re now back where we started, with employees being blindsided by something that effects their livelihood. And the filing of that form shouldn’t come as a surprise, it should have been telegraphed long before.

So how do you avoid surprises? Well, the first step is the same as with many issues: recognize the problem. Work on recognizing surprises in real-time. When you’re meeting with someone about a tough issue, pay close attention to them. Are they confused? Completely lost? That’s a sign for you. Maybe you need to reconsider. Maybe you turn this not into the actual job action meeting, but a warning about an impending action.

I admit you have to be careful here. There are many excellent actors in the world. And the feigning of surprise is learned at a very early age. Anyone who’s had children is well versed in the “who me” defense. But most people, especially parents, can see right through it. I have faith that you can use your judgement about what is a real look of surprise and what is fake. The good thing is that the worst that can happen is you delay the inevitable conversation by a short while.

Once you’ve mastered the art of recognizing surprise, you will soon learn to avoid it. You’ll have those many smaller, easier, conversations well in advance that prevent it in the first place. It’s really not that hard, especially if you do it in small, light doses.

This continuous feedback approach is so important, that we’ll talk a bunch more about it in future episodes. Specifically, in the next episode when we’ll talk about performance reviews. In the meantime, work on recognizing the symptoms. And remember my simple rule: no job action should be a surprise.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. Next week we’ll rehear another episode particularly well suited to the end of the year. It’s a redux of Bottom Feeder. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.