Cough it up, buddy – Another lesson in managing mistakes

Cough it up buddy – another lesson in managing mistakes


I spent a lot of time working a room of 120 people, as they were doing assignments to assess and strengthen their leadership practice. And I found myself in crazy disbelief at how backwards some organizations and supervisors seem to be. Two incidents stood out.

One person said, “we used to operate as a team and be encouraged [like at Google] to find creative ways to use our talents to impact the mission, but the new boss and her boss say, ‘just do your job. We don’t want you doing more than that.'” One of this woman’s co-workers left; another was pushed out. None of these three workers could understand operating without the adult empowerment that had been part of the old manager’s way and had made work great – fun to come to AND productive. A second woman at my training workshop talked about how her boss  had for three years encouraged her to expand her reach and skills, and spread her wings. This boss has now taken to reminding her, “you are classified as a secretary; just do your job.” And this woman’s utterly perplexed; at our lunch table you could feel her hurt and confusion.

A quick note on the first situation. There’s been a change in management and the new managers have the prerogative to set the rules and style. Clearly they have control issues. We all do. But for goodness sake, check your control instincts. A 21st century leader’s job is to EXPAND and GROW people’s ability to contribute. Period. If you’re shrinking your people you better ask yourself: What am I so afraid of? And tell yourself: my job is to grow people. Not to shrink them.

What was happening in the second story? Pause…Think about what you know about human nature. Why was this boss – who had been totally growing this woman –  suddenly dragging her down and making her small?  The boss is perhaps angry at, or afraid of something, I suspect.  But why all of a sudden? I’m almost certain my lunch mate made a mistake! I suspect that she did something bad with the freedom her boss had enabled and she way-overstepped some hidden line. Don’t you think? And maybe she did . . . perhaps said something to her boss’s boss, one of her boss’ peers, or even to the CEO? Maybe she said something to a client or a neighbor? Something that embarrassed or threatened her boss or messed up the business.

Have you ever had that experience where you’re getting the cold shoulder, you figure you’ve screwed something but, but you have NO IDEA what you did.   In this case, and maybe yours, the woman actually asked the mentor-turned-mental boss who denied that anything was wrong.  The boss wouldn’t cough it up. Another lesson about mistakes and management.

In a world where managers (hopefully!) encourage people to spread their wings, mistakes will be made.  Too often bosses chicken out and won’t help people understand the mistake.  Like this boss they turn from serious adult-adult behavior to adolescent passive-aggressive behavior. This behavior is in a way worse than being yelled at, because at least when you have a yeller, you can know the mistake and make future adjustments. Here, you’re completely dis-empowered, left in the dark.

You could give an employee a big gift this week if you “cough it up.” Tell them if there’s  something they did that was problematic, and explain why it was a problem. Then give them a chance to show that they “get it,” and help them if necessary (with information, training, feedback) to get back on track, so you can both

Lead with your best self!


P.S.  Many of you picked up my new book Be Real: Inspiring Stories for Leading at Work and Home from my site or from Amazon.  I appreciate the confidence and hope you’re enjoying it.  If so, I’d love it if you share it with others or leave a comment on the page on Amazon where it’s listed.

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  • Good morning Dan,

    There are a lot of gaps in this week’s RFL which I am not following however, management has the responsibilty to maintain the integrity of the business and that includes employee morale. I can’t see your point clearly.


    Thomas K. Burke

  • A large part of what is good advice above depends on having the employees who understand and behave according to the same system of thought Dan has. What many employers have is a power complex, and others have is fear, and for the reasons that they have had employees steal from them, or embarass the company, or use poor judgment.

    The advice above depends on hiring quality employees. I agree with the thinking and philosphy presented in the article, but would caution that in some circumstances it is hard to make work. Employees can be developed to work in this system of thought.

    Many elected officials think in the negative way of cutting down citizens’ comments and complaints, calling the citizens conspiracy theorists, et cetera. Power. Power and fear. Not a good combination.

  • Dan,

    “Coughing it up” to me is about practicing tough empathy. Many leaders know how to exert pressure, say ‘no,’ and start and win fights when necessary.

    The key to their success is to empathize with the person they are confronting. Emotionally intelligent leaders state useful facts rather than impressions, offer alternatives along with their objections and limit comments to the situation, not the person.

    Of all dimensions of emotional intelligence, social awareness may be the most easily recognized. We have all felt the empathy of a sensitive teacher or friend; we have all been struck by its absence in an unfeeling coach or boss. But when it comes to business, we rarely hear people praised, let alone rewarded, for their empathy. The very word seems unbusinesslike, out-of-place amid the tough realities of the marketplace.

    But empathy doesn’t mean a kind of “I’m okay, you’re okay” mushiness.

    It doesn’t mean that leaders should adopt other people’s emotions as their own and try to please everybody. Rather, empathy means taking employees’ feelings into thoughtful consideration and then making intelligent decisions that work those feelings into the response.

    And, most crucially, empathy makes resonance possible; lacking empathy, leaders act in ways that create dissonance.

  • I agree with your belief that the leader’s role is to grow their people. Usually dramatic productivity improvements follow when a manager BOTH 1) makes it clear what results are expected by when and 2) provides a reasonable measure of freedom for initiative, even risk taking. Employees generally reward the trust placed in them and then they take great pride in the outcome.

  • I hear your point loud and clear. The general trend is toward leading at every level and interpreting job descriptions creatively to build on individual talents and allow flexibility to respond to a dynamic work environment. And authors like us help people do that. It’s a balance between structure and invention. Some managers still can suck the life and creativity out of employees. Great leaders channel misdirected creative efforts – they don’t shut them down.

    I also agree that there are conversations that need to happen here. When opposites and styles collide there are opportunities. I also suspect the “secretary” overreached. Her manager would have done well to tell tell the truth about what happened – and she would do well to ask. We all spend too much time guessing.

  • Dan, I believe that expanding and growing the expertise of the staff is critically necessary especially as developments in the work environment happen rapidly on a daily basis. I promote and direct staff to attend leadership training conferences and seminars vitaly germane to our occupation and the service we provide. If funding is available, I strive to rotate among suboordinates their attendance at presentations that cover areas we as a staff and agency should be knowlegeable of as we ply our trade. This enhances our role, visibility, significance and the clientele appreciate working with service providers who are aware of and familiar with current trends and concepts. It is satisfing for a leader to know his or her staff can represent the views of the company or service provider with a very strong insight about a particular matter or project the staff has been assigned to work on.

  • Well, Dan, you’re welcome to your opinion about who screwed up with the woman who was suddenly chilled down to “You’re just a secretary,” but as so often happens, my opinion is different from yours, perhaps because I’ve experienced this way too often myself. My operating theory is that it was okay for me to grow, spread my wings, and expand my job duties all in the best interests of the company until the supervisor noticed that, “Hey! This subordinate is way more competent than I! Better not let the higher-ups see this or I might be out of a job! Eek! She’s probably trying to get my job by showing I’m not as good as she is! Better tell her to shut up and hopefully she’ll get discouraged enough to go away. What an ingrate, her trying to get my job when I was only trying to help her. I won’t tell her what I’m thinking; just chill her out. I don’t owe her any explanations…” This, even when, even though, I’ve told the supervisor that I’m very happy in my job, very happy to be working for her, don’t want any additional pay or job duties, just doing what I can to make her look good. It could be a guy supervisor, too, but in my experience, the guy bosses are perfectly comfortable letting me do all the work while they take all the credit. And that’s okay with me, too, although there have been times in my life when I wished I earned even 50% of what they do…

    It could be either as you see it or as I do, right?

  • Meryl,
    Your points are all well taken: increase “invention within structure,” and opportunities lurk within the tough conversations. The woman I wrote about was totally guessing, as you put it. And in her case she had asked what was up. Managers ought to know it’s THEIR responsibility to generate clarity. What a shame that her manager could not even be responsive, let alone proactive.

  • Activadvocate,
    I LOVE that you see things a different way. And, we’re both guessing. I think your guess is entirely plausible. One of my inquiries over lunch with the woman in question was: “Is the organization downsizing?” – because I wondered if her supervisor had seen peers get axed and possibly replaced by “underlings.” It didn’t seem that was the case, but who knows what triggered the bosses’ fear.
    Have you ever found a positive way forward when you’ve experienced the disrespect or “mere” injustice of making others look good without pay or appropriate recognition? I am probably TOO ready with solutions, but in this case, although I’m quite clear about what teh supervisor should do, I’m at a real loss as to what the employee should do.

  • Well, as I’ve said since I’ve faced this situation numerous times before, it seems the staffer faces a choice among equally depressing options: play the rug and let the supervisor walk all over you, get the heck out of there and hope for something better, accept the silent shunning while plotting your next move because chances are, they’re going to figure out a way, a reason, to fire you. Just hope for unemployment compensation, so the company will have to pay for its poor choice of a person with a lousy management style.

    No one’s ever accused me of being a lousy communicator so believe me, I’ve done my best to work things out but where the supervisor is too insecure to BE REAL (where did that idea come from?), there is no way that even the most gifted communicator can work things out. It takes two. This is how a lot of organizations lose a lot of talent: insecure managers who can’t abide having competent, talented people working for them–only people they can limit and control with an iron hand–the threat of termination and loss of income. Terrifying!

    I’ve been fortunate, with a husband who provided for me. I could always dare to speak my inconvenient truth in a deep, sincere desire to deeply resolve things in a win / win kind of way. People who are so terrified of reality and fear that they are incompetent and therefore prefer to live in denial have a very hard time getting along with truthspeakers. I try to reassure the boss, along the lines of a book entitled _Managing Your Boss_, but it’s never enough to be heard and respected and believed. Their insecurity runs too deep. They cannot entertain the possibility that I really want to help them look good, and I don’t care if I get the credit. I’m not looking for thanks and I’m not trying to fix blame. I’m trying to fix the problem!

    Refusal to talk things out is also the reason why a lot of marriages fail… or so I believe. I wonder if your book will help people whose marriage is on the rocks?

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