The Root Of It All

I hear a lot of reasons why people are frustrated with their jobs and their manager:

Out of nowhere, she started asking me to send a weekly spreadsheet documenting all the tasks I’ve done and how much time each took.

He doesn’t speak to me unless he needs something.

He steps in and answers everyone's questions and won’t let me run the project update meetings. I’m not being recognized as an expert in what I do.

In my extremely (un)scientific research on what makes employees unhappy, what’s stood out is that all of the reasons I hear have something in common: people just want to feel needed and appreciated.

It’s the root of it all.

Not feeling appreciated creates tension. At first, the employee manages it, either by seeking feedback from someone else or shrugging it off as a phase and assuming it will change.

But this behavior isn’t sustainable and over time the tension grows.

The frustrating thing is most people feel too awkward saying “I just want to know that I’m doing a good job and you appreciate my work” so they don’t say anything at all. Instead, they let it fester. And that festering becomes a hidden message for the manager to decipher, which is scary because without exceptional emotional intelligence, most managers don’t pick up on anything being wrong until there is a resignation letter in front of them.

Of course we want the employee to advocate for themselves but a manager can’t control if that happens. So, how can we gauge if employees are feeling needed and appreciated?


Use open-ended questions that leave room for talk about feelings (the dreaded “f” word):

·        How can I be the most helpful to you this week?

·        What’s motivated you this past week?

·        What is your biggest accomplishment this month?

·        What could I be doing differently to make sure you feel supported?

·        What can I do to help you enjoy your work more? 

To dig deeper, use follow up questions like “Could you tell me a little more about that?” or “What has that experience been like for you?” that uncover their true feelings. Watch for blinking words - what are they saying that indicates they don’t feel appreciated? It could be an illusion to not having enough resources or support for a project, or feeling unprepared to deal with an angry customer. During the conversation, also ask yourself: How would I feel if this were me?

Because that will be the most important question of all.

Can a Bad Manager Be Saved?

People leave people, not companies, right?

We're in an epidemic of low engagement (I like to call this "The Working Dead") and no matter how many perks a company offers, employees are still unhappy.

Managers make or break an employee.

Think about it.

A good manager develops and grows people. Listens. Understands everyone's values, gives autonomy and purpose (If you haven't read Drive by Dan Pink stop what you're doing and immediately go buy it), and provides regular feedback that comes from a place of good intentions.

A bad manager can't be trusted, puts the team last, is selfish. Doesn't provide regular feedback, set goals, or share information. Gossips. Acts passive-aggressively and quite possibly also has low integrity. (Having any one of these characteristics is a problem; count yourself lucky if you've worked for someone who had them all!)

When I find someone who has a bad manager (which I'm defining as a boss who has many of the qualities above or additional ones I didn't list - not just a few that can be overlooked) we start our coaching sessions by first looking within and seeing what changes can be made that might impact the manager's behavior. For example:

  • Are you taking things too personally?
  • How are you setting yourself up for success? Are you giving your manager a reason to do <insert behavior here>?
  • Are you always assuming the worst? Too much of a pessimist?

When someone has a bad manager this helps for a little while, but since it's a band-aid and treats the symptom (the employee's behavior), instead of getting to the root of the problem (the manager), the results aren't sustained. And that's the moment of truth:

Can you give your boss this feedback, and if so will it change his or her behaviors?

Yes! Pass go, collect your $200, jump for joy. This means the manager has self-awareness and high emotional intelligence. Which means he's willing to listen, empathize with what you're saying, and won't be offended.

No. It's a lost cause. If you can't talk it out for fear of being reprimanded or because she is so clueless that she won't take the feedback seriously, it's time to move on.

A bad manager can only be saved if there is high emotional intelligence, of which two components are empathy and self-awareness. These characteristics are the foundation of everything that comes next (continuous feedback, a support system, good leaders to emulate). Without these, it's a lost cause.

You Want Me to Do What?

Most managers aren't taught to talk about the talent on their team. They're conditioned to focus on business results, not succession planning or development or any of that "mushy" HR stuff.

So imagine the feelings of anxiety when a meeting titled "Talent Calibration" appears in a manager's inbox.

You want me to talk about the performance review ratings I gave my team? And say out loud what I think each person's potential is? And listen to what my peers think about those ratings I gave? And give feedback about people who aren't even on my team? Do you want my first born too?

The first time a calibration meeting happens, managers freeze.

... crickets ...

They're scared. They might say the wrong thing. The information feels so private. They want to protect their team. They don't want to look like a bad leader. They don't want to have a negative impact on someone's salary or bonus.

As a Talent Manager, talking about performance and potential ratings is second nature but when launching a talent calibration for the first time, it's critical that I acknowledge managers don't feel the same. I have to take a thoughtful approach so they feel less anxious on the day of the meeting.

I meet with the executive ahead of time to gauge the current team culture and help with messaging. Are managers feeling beat down? Are they energized after coming off of a great year? What am I walking into? This is crucial - it lets me know how positively or negatively I can expect conversations to go, which impacts the type of questions I ask.

We also talk about goals for the session. Do they want to succession plan? Use the 9-Box grid to come up with development activities for the top 15%? Maybe just help managers get a feel for how their peers rate employees? Then, we create the communication, which looks like an email explaining the what and why, along with a follow up conversation in the next team meeting. HR should not be the messenger when introducing the concept of a talent calibration.

I use encouraging language leading up to the meeting. This sounds simple, but it has a huge impact. In the calendar invite, I also share why we are calibrating (we want to identify and promote your most talented people!) and what the manager needs to do (be prepared to share all the amazing things your people are doing!). I drive by their desk and ask "How are you feeling about this week's calibration meeting? What questions do you have?" And then I listen.

The meeting always starts slow. No one talks except the executive and the manager of the employee being presented, and that's ok. We start with the 4 and 5 performance ratings (the highest ratings that can be earned) so that the conversation is lighter and easier. The more positive and transparent that the executive is, the more quickly managers start talking.

I worked with Felicia on the xyz project and agree that she exceeds expectations. Her attention to detail and willingness to take on more work just to make sure we delivered on time impressed me. I'd say that she is definitely developing and could be ready in 1-3 years for a promotion.

I encourage.

This is exactly what we're looking for! Thanks Jim for sharing.

I ask probing questions.

If Margaret got a 4, do you think she should be rated as high potential instead of developing? What is holding her back? Who else has worked with Margaret?

It takes a few rounds, but gradually I see the anxiety begin to wear off.

Managers walking into a calibration for the first time have their armor on. They want to shield themselves, hide from disagreement, and protect their people. It's the Talent Manager's job to break through that armor because the outcomes can be so, so motivating: improved ability to rate performance, increased knowledge of who's who in the department, and individualized development activities that grow and motivate employees.

First comes encouragement and communication.

Then the magic happens.