Tunnel Vision

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There’s a tunnel heading into downtown Portland that I find quite stressful. For some reason, many folks tend to repeatedly honk their horns in the tunnel (who started this and can it please, for the love of all that’s good, stop?!?) which feels both obnoxious and unnecessary.

On a recent trip to meet Kerri, I had to go through the tunnel. It was a particularly warm day, so I had the windows down. Since I know that people are going to do the horn thing, I usually just roll up the windows prior to entering the tunnel, but this day was different, as I had both Quinn and my (doggie) niece in the car and wanted them to have access to the breeze.

As we entered the tunnel, the honking started, but I thought we would be through it quickly enough, so I told the girls we would just hold on. As we got deeper in the tunnel and traffic slowed, I could hear not only the honking of the horns, but also the sounds of large trucks, reverberating off the concrete. At this point, it was quite warm, very loud, and I was extremely overwhelmed. Since it didn’t really feel like I could close the windows, I made the decision to just wait it out and focus on the fact that it would be over soon. And since the tunnel has only one entry and exit point, with no other escape possible, I just had to keep going. It was an experience that can only be described as “complete sensory overload.”

Now if you know me at all, you might suspect that I am about to pivot to a management lesson, and you would be right. Because as soon as I got through the tunnel, feeling sweaty and unsettled, I thought about how it was the perfect metaphor for managers dealing with employee performance issues (seriously, this really is how my mind works).

Here’s basically what happens:

  1. A manager realizes they need to enter the tunnel (address the issue).
  2. Once in the tunnel, it feels extremely stressful (due to things like possible conflict, lack of self-confidence, concern over not having good discernment or enough skills to handle the situation, etc.).
  3. They think there will never be an end (because these things often take a while and are a process).
  4. They have no choice but to hold on (honestly, what can they do otherwise?).
  5. Finally, they emerge, wanting to get as far away from the whole experience as fast as possible (usually self-critical and unsure if they should even BE a manager at all).

But what if it doesn’t have to be this way?

Today, I want to share a few thoughts on how managers can handle performance issues without losing sleep, confidence, or their minds.

Let me start by saying there are many problems that can be avoided by simply being clear about expectations and doing the appropriate follow through and follow up. And while we all know Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts about “An ounce of prevention (being) worth a pound of cure,” let’s assume this is more of a “horse is out of the barn and now we need to deal with it,” kind of moment.

So, what to do?

First and foremost, let’s remember that dealing with a performance issue is ultimately about the goal of getting a change in behavior, so the employee can be successful.

Let’s start by going back to the very beginning and really getting clear on the current state.

  1. Has the manager been (exceedingly) clear about expectations? Are they certain (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that what was expected was clearly communicated?
  2. How much of this does the manager own? Let’s remember that managers are people, too. Sometimes they are long on intentions and short on follow through. They are also rarely given time to do the actual work of management (SO MANY MEETINGS). This doesn’t absolve anyone of poor performance, but it does mean they will likely need to return to the beginning and really get grounded before moving forward.
  3. Are there skills they need to coach/train/provide feedback on? We often see performance problems because someone wasn’t trained properly, or the assumption of competence was made when there is actually a gap.

Before entering the tunnel, the manager needs to honestly answer these questions to the best of their abilities, and then develop the message that will ensure they stay on track and drive this engagement to a successful conclusion. It really is about preparing a roadmap to the desired location—in this case, helping the employee be successful.

Once those issues are settled and the manager has actually entered the tunnel (started down the road to dealing with a performance issue) they have to keep moving forward. To navigate this part well, we suggest they…

Stay on message: they want a change in behavior or performance, so they must continue to help the employee move toward competence. They can do this by providing feedback, coaching, and training.

Stay positive: give the employee an appropriate amount of time to improve (remember, we likely didn’t get here overnight, so we probably aren’t going to see immediate change on most issues). Don’t be critical or unkind and for heaven’s sake, don’t discuss what is happening with anyone who isn’t on a “need to know” basis.

Stay diligent: look for any signs of improvement. Praise growth and keep following through and following up.

As the manager sees progress and when they are absolutely certain that growth is permanent (or really unlikely to slip in any significant way) it’s time to exit the tunnel.

At that point, it’s in everyone’s best interest to move on and move forward. The manager should keep an eye on the issue, for sure, but refrain from bringing it up or browbeating the employee with it. It’s crucial they have the opportunity to show they are more than this one moment in time and be treated with the same respect given to the very best employees.

When managers navigate performance issues well, everyone benefits. The employee returns to being a valued member of the team, other employees respect the change that results, upper leadership knows the manager is effective, and ultimately, the brand is more valuable.

It’s likely that the first time the manager has to navigate the tunnel they will feel just as unsettled as I did. But with practice, it gets a whole lot easier and soon enough, it’s just another traffic pattern.