Never Give Up On Your People

The path to success is not a straight line, I am learning. There are ups and downs in business – periods of prosperity can be immediately followed by abject failure. I think part of the reason for this ebbing and flowing of success is the fact that people are imperfect. Employees screw up. Sales people miss goals. Project managers miss deadlines and run over budget. Failure can be hard for a manager who expects perfection to cope with.

Giving up on an imperfect team member a during tough time could kick off a downward spiral for the manager. Say business hits a rough patch and the manager blames an employee. When this happens the manager begins to (perhaps subconsciously) look for reasons to validate his hypothesis that the employee is to blame. The manager begins to find laziness or carelessness or a bad attitude when he starts really looking. In turn, the employee realizes he is seen as a lazy and careless worker with a bad attitude as far as the manager is concerned, and perhaps the employee’s behavior worsens.

The manager, sensing he is losing the employee, begins to push him harder and harder, becoming more demanding and more “task oriented.” When a manager’s mindset changes like this, the other employees’ imperfections become magnified. All of the sudden, the manager is ready to give up on the entire team, or, worse, the team gives up on the manager. This is how bad situations become disasters, and some management careers end.

I heard a great story in business school about a famous manager dealing with a tough situation.

“When Tom Watson Jr. was chief executive of IBM in the early 1960s, he summoned an executive to his office after the man lost $10 million in a venture. Watson asked the man, ‘Do you know why I called you here?’ Knowing of Watson’s legendary temper, the man replied: ‘I assume you’re going to fire me.’

‘Fire you?’ Watson asked. ‘I spent $10 million educating you. I just want to be sure you learned the right lessons.'”

People need to know that their leader believes in them. Sure, great leaders can be demanding and hold employees to tough standards. People want to be challenged. People also want to work for an optimist. More importantly, people want to know that if they put in the effort their manager will have their backs in good times and bad. If they doubt this for a second the manager will never get their best effort, and he will eventually lose the entire team.