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Annie Hayes



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Why is it so hard to manage Emma?


Ever since ‘Emma’ was promoted to section manager, Alex has been increasingly worried about how to manage her performance; David Barnard of the HayGroup looks at the challenges.

Emma is the kind of person you want to have working for you. She wants to do a good job. She likes working in a team, and takes evident pleasure in the gossip and banter of the office. When she focuses on a job, you know that she will give it her best shot and that’s normally good enough, or better.

But, ever since Emma was promoted to be section manager, Alex has been increasingly worried about how to manage her performance. She continues to be a valued member of staff, and her promotion was richly deserved but Emma doesn’t seem to be “getting it” as a manager.

Despite having worked together on objectives that will be reviewed at the end of the year, Emma is operating more as the first among equals, rather than as a leader. Alex wants Emma to recognise that she is not really doing the whole of her job, but he doesn’t want to demotivate her. He knows he can’t leave this situation until the next formal review, but what should he do?

The general problem
Managing good staff often requires more intelligent and sensitive handling than managing the best or worst performers. That is not to say that managers feel that managing good people is more difficult than dealing with underperformance – quite the contrary. But because normal people prefer to say “well done” rather than exploring deficiencies, we have a tendency to avoid challenging all our staff, whatever their current level of contribution.

And yet, the ability to improve the contribution of our average staff is going to make more difference to valued outcomes (the bottom line) than any amount of effort spent on the outstanding or the poor performers. Why? Because there are so many more of them.

So if the amount of improved performance available comes from challenging and inspiring our average people, why do we spend so much emotional energy and time on the bottom end of the bell curve? The answer often is a surprising one: it’s a cop-out. “No one can reproach me for dealing with bad performance, and, so long as the rest of the office is ticking over OK, I’ve done my job.”

This kind of thinking certainly isn’t stretching people to do their best. And sometimes it appears that all levels of management are colluding to have an easier life by avoiding the responsibility to challenge good, solid contributors, whilst wasting time and money on lengthy disciplinary procedures that can take years, when swift action is required in such cases. The irony is that this unconscious collusion makes our lives more difficult in the end.

Rethinking the problem
The reasons for these attitudes to managing others and being managed are many and complex. But, at their simplest, they can be gathered under three broad headings that are all to do with the way individuals relate one to another: role clarity, self image, and values.

If Alex wants Emma to step up to the leadership aspects of her role as section manager, then he needs to do two things, one fairly simple, the other more challenging to both of them.

Firstly, Alex should spend some time ensuring that Emma has the same expectations of her role as he has. This is not just a matter of accountabilities and tasks, but a vivid picture of how to live a role as a section manager. Emma doesn’t just have to do different things, she has to forge different relationships. Her social milieu at work has changed.

Has she made the mental leap to MANAGER: someone who sets the direction for the team, tells them what to do when necessary, looks after their spirit as a group, helps them develop, shows them what excellence looks like, and involves them in decisions when appropriate. If Emma doesn’t appreciate this and finds it difficult to see herself as such a person, then Alex has his own managerial challenge to help Emma develop.

But before launching into developing Emma, Alex needs to do the second and more challenging part of his preparation. He needs to be aware not only of what makes her tick, but also what he wants to change in their relationship. That affects him as much as her. He needs to think about himself before he explores Emma’s role, self image and values.

Alex’s reflection could go something like this:

Role clarity

My assumptions about what other important people expect of me:

  • My boss wants me to run a tight ship, generate sales revenue, and solve his problems for him
  • My staff want me to tell them what to do, solve their problems and look after them
  • My colleagues want me to share resources with them so that they can meet their targets
  • My children want me to come home earlier each day so that they can play with me


My positive and negative thoughts about myself; what I strive for and avoid:

Positive thoughts

  • I’m really good at sales
  • I understand and like my clients
  • I work hard to do my best
  • I get on well with people

Negative thoughts

  • I’m no good at long-term planning
  • I don’t manage people well
  • People only like me if I do well


What I think it is important to do and be within this organisation and elsewhere:

  • I expect people to do their best
  • I don’t like shirkers
  • I think friendly relationships at work and with clients are important
  • I don’t like “political” people
  • I want my children to think of me as a good daddy

Next step: what would Emma say for each of these?

A number of important questions can emerge from this kind of reflection. For example:

  • Are my assumptions about what others want from me correct?
  • Are there some people who are important, but whom I have not considered?
  • How does this affect the way I look at my job (or even my life)?
  • Do some of my positive thoughts get in the way of doing my job well?
  • Are my negative thoughts true, and even if there is some truth in them, how much is this due to the fact that I avoid certain things?
  • Do I act consistently with my values?
  • Do my values cause me to “label” people when I first get to know them?

Unless Alex has explored these aspects of himself, he will continue to see the world through a distorted filter. In short, his prejudices will be easily triggered, and he will start to account for Emma’s behaviour in the light of his own concerns and way of seeing the world. He is more likely to jump in with his own solutions, and will find it more difficult to listen properly to Emma.

Management that is emotionally intelligent

Appreciating this, and dealing with it is the beginning of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.

When we manage others with emotional intelligence, we can start to attend to their perspective on reality and begin to replace the question marks about Emma’s role clarity, self image and values with hypotheses that are likely to be reasonably accurate.

If we consciously practise EI more regularly, we will be on the alert for more opportunities to manage others’ performance. Alex doesn’t have to wait for a formal review meeting to work with Emma on her leadership skills. If he keeps his EI “radar” switched on, he can pick up on her concerns and issues when he bumps into her in the lift or corridor, and grasp the opportunity to give her developmental feedback or check how things are going in a really focused way.

Managers constantly give non-conscious signals about what is important, and what is not. If Alex is more wrapped up in thinking about his next big sale to clients, he won’t be able to capitalise on the golden management moments that occur unbidden. By putting clients ahead of Emma in his scale of who is important, he focuses his attention in a place that reduces his impact as a manager.

Getting practical

So when Alex has reflected on his own perspectives and prejudices, and is ready to focus on the Emma “problem”, he needs to be prepared to explore four things with her:

  • Setting and sharing an agreed agenda – this is about role clarity and how it fits in with the needs of colleagues and the organisation as a whole
  • Exploring what has happened and Emma’s underlying motivation – this requires open-minded and disciplined enquiry into how Emma sees herself, her capabilities, her achievements, and her values
  • Making and testing hypotheses – this is a collaborative discussion about why things are as they are, and relating ideas about what makes Emma tick to the behaviour she exhibits
  • Considering options and agreeing next steps – Alex needs to help Emma to lay out the options, and then consider which of them is likely to motivate her, lead to the desired outcome, and be practically achievable in the context of her life and work. All this happens firmly in the context of Emma’s role, and depends on a clear and constructive feedback.

The ability to do this well is underpinned not only by emotional intelligence and personal integrity, but also by coaching skills such as warmth, empathy, listening, and summarising. If Alex can do this well (or at least better than he has done in the past), he will be providing a good role model for what he expects Emma to do for her staff.

At the end of the day, Alex was allowing Emma’s problem to become his problem. Because he wasn’t discussing it with her, she couldn’t be part of the solution, and Alex’s own world view was getting in the way of his broaching the subject in a way that makes Emma feel in control. The real “win” here is for both to learn together, to share the route to a solution, and for both to emerge stronger and more capable.

See HayGroup for details of the video/DVD Giving feedback-emotional intelligence in action.

David Barnard is an Associate Director at the HayGroup.

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Annie Hayes


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