Don't Be a Fair Weather Manager

Last Updated May 6, 2010 8:03 PM EDT

The primary source of critical feedback for any employee, manager, or executive, is from their direct boss. Without it, up-and-comers with management potential would never become the leaders of tomorrow. It's also how leaders refine their skills and become great leaders. Unfortunately, providing negative feedback is something most of us hate to do and avoid like the plague.

I'm not just talking about annual reviews. I'm talking about weekly one-on-ones, even the occasional cold slap in the face when someone really goes off the rails. How often do you find yourself assessing a direct report in your head, but instead of telling him what you think, you come up with some excuse to back off and let him "find out for himself?" All too often, I bet.
Luckily, I was blessed with quite a few managers who had the guts to give it to me straight, no matter how painful it was for them. There were times when they could have let themselves off easy, but they didn't. And I know there were times when I wasn't entirely receptive, or they didn't seem to be getting through, but they persisted anyway.

Here are a few of the many ways in which direct managers affected my career. First, the systematic approach:

One CEO religiously met with his direct reports one-on-one on a weekly basis. He had a running list he'd go through, but it wasn't the usual perfunctory check-box process. He would literally delve into each item until he was satisfied it was covered. At first it felt like micromanaging, but you know, it enabled us to collaborate in ways I'd never experienced with a CEO. And while the interaction seemed invasive at first, that subsided in time. And it opened the door for each of us to discuss each other's styles and issues. It was truly unique and unusually beneficial.
Then there's the cold slap in the face:
After a particularly highly-charged meeting where I got into it with a peer, my CEO (a different one) took me aside and said, "You know, you really shoot yourself in the foot when you handle it that way." The problem turned out to be unresolved issues between myself and my peer, which I subsequently resolved. The second time it occurred, I realized there was a trend and addressed it ... thanks to the CEO speaking up.
I can go on and on with examples from throughout my career, but the main point is this. Regardless of their management level, nobody can see their own issues like an outsider can. And that's especially true for ongoing problems that have been festering for a long time. And while peers, coworkers, and employees often see the issues too, the direct manager is usually in the best position to address it without negative consequences for a number of reasons:
  • The manager can usually achieve a relatively high level of objectivity
  • The boss is typically best equipped to give the most appropriate advice
  • The employee is likely to be most receptive to the perspective of someone in authority
  • The manager can usually draw from the most experience
  • It's actually the boss's job to do it
So, the next time you think you're helping an employee by patting her on the back, you'll be doing her even more good by offering advice for improvement. You'll also be helping your company and, if that's not enough, just remember this: It's your damn job, so do it!