I used to lead stress management workshops early in my career. At
the beginning of every workshop, I’d put people in small groups and
ask them this question: ‘‘What bugs you about your job?’ I’d let
them talk for a while. Then we’d make a list of sources of stress on
the job.
The bad news for managers? About 90 percent of the items on
these lists referred to what the participants’ direct managers were
doing—or failing to do—that caused needless stress on the job. Cer-
tainly, people identified job-related stressors, such as customers who
were difficult to please, unpleasant working conditions, or long
hours. But most of their complaints focused on their direct manag-
ers. And what was the most frequent complaint at the top of the list?
‘Nobody ever lets me know how I’m doing around here until I screw
something up . . . and even then I may not hear about it until my
annual evaluation.’’ As one person put it, ‘Doing a good job around
here is like wetting your pants in the dark. It feels warm for a while
but no one notices.’’
Nothing seems to have changed. Over the past twenty years, in
project after project, working in all kinds of companies and profes-
sions, my private conversations with people reveal that most manag-
ers are failing to provide their employees with frequent and effective
In the absence of hearing from their bosses about the quality of
their work, people reach the conclusion that their managers are not
paying much attention to what they do and don’t care about their
performance. In the absence of regular feedback, some people reach
wildly inaccurate conclusions about the quality of their work.
Some people assume that they are not doing well. A conversa-
tion with a bank vice president revealed she was updating her resume
because she felt she was failing to meet her manager’s expectations.
Why? Because he rarely made any comments about her work and
had seemed unusually grumpy around her lately. I suggested she ask
him how she was doing before she started looking for other work.
It just so happened that a week or so later that she and her boss
were on a business trip to a nearby city. Because she knew the city
well, she did the driving. At one point she pulled into a parking lot
and said, ‘I know this city and you don’t. If you want to get to our
meeting on time, you have to tell me how I am doing at work. You’ve
said so little to me lately that I’ve begun to wonder if I am in trouble
for something you haven’t told me about.’ Her manager began by
telling her she was the ‘consummate professional.’’ He went on to
provide examples that made clear he had very high regard for her
work. Lately he’d become distracted by issues in his personal and
professional life and, as a result, he had been having fewer conversa-
tions with her. The combination of inadequate feedback and the in-
creasing sense of disconnectedness from her boss led her to assume
that her manager was displeased with her work.
Failure to provide ongoing feedback and coaching can also lead
to the exact opposite conclusion, where poor performers may think
they are doing just fine. In one project I was told about a manager
who had recently gone to his boss to ask for a raise. The conversa-
tion ended with the termination of this manager, whose performance
had been unacceptable for some time. But in the absence of feed-
back, he felt that he was doing so well that he deserved a raise!
Assessment interviews in my projects often reveal that someone
on a team is not doing a good job and that everyone on the team
knows it, but the manager of the team is failing to resolve the prob-
lem. In conversations with that person’s teammates, they express the
opinion that their boss is either oblivious and doesn’t notice poor
performance or, worse yet, that the boss notices but doesn’t care
enough to intervene.
The scarcity of praise and inadequate responses to poor perform-
ance are difficult to understand. All leaders are accountable for the
performance of the teams they lead. This is as true for a first-line
supervisor of five people as it is for the president of a company. I’ve

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