Staying Out of the Penalty Box: Lessons Learned from Coaching Executives
By Seth R. Silver, Ed.D., c. March 2020
In 22 years as a leadership consultant, I have provided executive coaching to many managers, at all levels, in a wide variety of organizations. To date, they all had one thing in common: they were in the ‘penalty box’, with HR, their boss, and their staff. They were referred to me, not because they were tapped for praise and promotion, but because they had messed up one too many times and were on thin ice. Many were facing possible termination; others demotion or serious reprimand. My job was to help fix them; by making them into better managers and colleagues, ideally within a few months. Typically I succeeded. On occasion, the best I could do was extend their shelf-life, helping them improve enough to keep their jobs for another year or two until they relapsed into their old habits and crossed some organizational red line again.
One ‘Silver Bullet’ I share with clients, to frame the feedback and coaching process, is: “If there is no reflection, there is no learning. If there is no learning, there is no change. And if there is no change, eventually you stagnate and fail”. I have reflected on a few of the bigger issues I have seen land managers in the penalty box, and come up with several lessons learned to help any supervisor, manager or executive. These brief points of advice are derived from real clients with whom I have worked over the last few years, and are listed in no particular order.
1. Truly understand that if most of your staff do not respect you, do not trust your ability to manage them competently, and as a result do not support you, you are in heap of trouble! I have had clients in this situation and it is almost impossible to recover. All work relationships are important, but the relationship with your staff is arguably the most important. You cannot succeed without their respect and trust, and both can be lost in many ways. Some crucial rules to consider: Make few promises but keep them all. Know what your staff is working on – do not be “clueless” about their projects. Include them as much as possible on key decisions. Never share an individual’s private/personal information with other members of the team. (I had one client who carelessly did this several times and even after a heartfelt apology the team never forgave or trusted her again). Never share your negative views of a team member with another team member – this can really damage trust. Criticize only in private; keep feedback as helpful and caring as possible; and focus on the future not the past. Let the team determine how you can help them – don’t impose your help without permission. And finally, never play favorites – make sure your time, support and appreciation are fairly distributed. Bottom line: your staff can lose respect and trust for any serious violation of these rules, and if they do, you lose credibility and maybe your job.
2. Don’t rely too much on your strengths! Strengths, if over-used, can become your weakness, allowing you to forget what is important as a leader. One client of mine had high skill and fondness for all things technical, which kept him from spending time on strategic efforts and developing others to do the technical work. Although he refocused for a while, he reverted back to doing what he liked, not what needed doing. His inattention to results and misuse of time eventually cost him his job. The antidote is to know what you are good at, what you need help with, and make sure you spend whatever time it takes on the things that are most important to success in the role you are in, not the role you came from, or even on the tasks that play to your strengths.
3. Don’t wait to address the poor performers on your team. Many of my coaching clients, perhaps because of other issues or wanting to avoid conflict, were slow to recognize performance problems on their team. The lesson learned here is to know that more people than you realize are watching what you will do when there is an obvious performance or attitude problem. Judgements will be made about your leadership, and avoidance, delay or weak action will frustrate your team, reduce respect for you, and ultimately impair your results. To be clear, this does not always mean terminating the problem person. However some type of timely, direct and firm response is usually required. Those clients who had this issue, once they took decisive action, almost always were asked later by members of their team “what took you so long?”
4. This may seem obvious, but don’t let your outside life overly interfere with your work. We all have complex lives with lots of non-work commitments and obligations. The challenge for each of us is to make sure that this outside life does not adversely impact our focus and performance on the job. Depending on your workplace, there will be some tolerance for personal situations and time off, but only to a point. I am not referring to unavoidable crises, such as a death, serious injury/illness or family emergency. I am thinking of clients who had a side business, took on time-consuming volunteer work, pursued hobbies that were prioritized over work, or had ‘complicated’ personal lives (e.g. drinking problem, messy divorce, adulterous affairs). I have had clients with complicated personal lives, and once these distractions stopped, their work performance improved dramatically and they got out of the penalty box. In short, get your priorities clear and make sure you are giving your managerial responsibilities the focus and time you would expect from everyone else in your role.
5. This advice is also obvious but surprisingly ignored sometimes: don’t be a jerk! Specifically, don’t be a narcissist, don’t be arrogant, and don’t be a pompous know-it-all. And never be dismissive or resistant to honest feedback from the senior level or your peers. Believe it or not, I have had several clients who were in the penalty box for these exact behaviors. They were certain all the problems resided in others, that they were blameless, and always the smartest in the room. Even the looming threat of termination or demotion did not initially get their attention because they assumed they were too valuable. The antidote, if you have this issue, is first to remember that ultimately you are paid to be cooperative, no matter what your level or role (after all, who is hired to be a pain to work with?). Second, consider what you really want your reputation to be; what personal and professional legacy you want to leave; and whether the ‘I am always right’ style will actually help you make the contributions and have the respect and relationships that you claim to want. And if those reflections don’t work, then try this thought experiment: what would it be like to manage someone on your staff who was just like you, a narcissistic know-it-all? It would not matter how smart they are or technically gifted, the damage they would cause you, and the messes you surely would have to clean up for them, would not be worth it. In sum, being an arrogant jerk will eventually kill any career.
6. And finally, on a psychological note, be aware that your own issues, whether from early family dynamics or something else, can unconsciously play out at work, especially in the relationships with your boss and staff. There is no doubt that unresolved or lingering dynamics with parents or siblings may actually influence your expectations and attitudes toward these colleagues. Psychologists call this transference. For example, several clients I have worked with seemed to want unconditional approval and almost daily praise; or bristle at authority and resort to anger and threats to get their way. The lesson learned, and this is easier said than done, is to be very self-aware and realize that your inner-child can take over, particularly under stress. So here are two practices to adopt: First, in difficult or emotional situations with your manager or team, never ever react in the moment, but rather take a time-out, get your thoughts together, and decide how to respond with a rational, professional and adult mind-set. Consider how a respected friend or colleague who you view as mature would respond in the same situation. Second, take a hard look every few months at your expectations of your manager and your team and put them through a ‘rationality filter’. Ask yourself if they actually make sense; could you share them out loud without being embarrassed; if your peers would have the same expectations; and if you would want these expectations held of you. My clients who were able to adopt these practices consistently got out of the penalty box and changed their reputations for the better. The few who could not control their inner child from taking over, eventually, were tossed out of the game.
Dr. Seth R. Silver is an Organizational Consultant, principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., has worked with over 150 organizations to improve leadership effectiveness, workplace culture, professional relationships, and overall performance. He was a graduate level professor at St. John Fisher College and RIT for 14 years, and has published on leadership, empowerment, covenants, and team alignment. He can be reached at 585-330-7853, or web-site: SilverConsultingInc.com.