We all intuitively realize that each person within an organization should be productive and perform at a level that justifies their position and salary. It's not unrealistic to expect everyone to enjoy contributing their part to the overall goals of the company, and offer no excuses for poor performance.
The Great Dr. Harry Levinson (psychological consultant to numerous organizations) has a keen eye for perceiving the most fundamental problems with management. One of the primary problems he has found in the hundreds of companies that he's researched and consulted with is the universality of what he calls “management by guilt.”
The crux of management by guilt is the tendency to not hold people accountable for how they should be performing due to the manager’s internal discomfort around conflict and disappointment. In his research, Levinson has repeatedly witnessed managers reporting feeling like a “not nice person” when they had to confront people with the reality of their poor performance. When this pattern has been set, managers will typically procrastinate dealing with these individuals who clearly have not been doing what’s expected, for years.
This irrational way of managing comes from our general reluctance to deal with what reality tells us, if that reality forces us to see and feel our disappointment in someone’s performance. This is usually an overly developed conscience at work. Additionally, people who are poor performers often elicit our sympathy and have a way of making others feel guilty if they are confronted. This sets up the destructive little dance that can continue indefinitely. In the meantime- the company, the team, and the person who is allowed this leniency; are all left to languish.
Management by guilt typically follows a six step process:
- Disappointment in the subordinate;
- Failure to confront him/her realistically about his/her performance or behavior;
- Procrastination in reaching a decision about him/her;
- Covering up with false compliments to ease the guilt of the disappointment;
- Transfer to another position;
- Finally, discharging the person.
Levinson goes on to say that the consequences of the above often include:
- The subordinate's occupational opportunities are either impaired or destroyed in the name of kindness;
- Executives hurt each other as they transfer this person;
- The company suffers because the subordinate often draws a salary for years without producing adequately.
(Harry Levinson; Selected Articles, 2009)
Remember, A poor performer has an impact on much more than their immediate, obvious responsibilities. I have personally witnessed individuals bottleneck an entire department because of their refusal to do what was expected.
Here are some quotes from Dr. Levinson about this topic that we each need to etch in granite:
"Each person must see adequate reaction to his performance and behavior if he is to govern it accordingly."
"When after two or three direct discussions of a person's performance, she is unable to change her behavior to meet the requirements of her position, it is a reasonably safe assumption that the person cannot change voluntarily."
"Unless a Leader takes charge, and makes it clear that she is in charge, her subordinates are likely to continue to challenge her and to be in conflict with each other."
Editor's Note: This article was written by Dr. David Mashburn. Dave is a Clinical and Consulting Psychologist, a Partner at Tidemark, Inc. and a regular contributor to WorkPuzzle. Comments or questions are welcome. If you're an email subscriber, reply to this WorkPuzzle email. If you read the blog directly from the web, you can click the "comments" link below.