Sometimes it’s just about us

Picture this: You’re participating in a two-stage program on performance management. In Part one, you learn about and practice skills such as how to give positive feedback, how to give constructive feedback, and a step-by-step method for dealing with under-performance.

You’re all working on the performance management issues you brought with you (Chatham House Rules, of course), explaining to the others a bit about the under-performing team member, the specific performance gap(s), the background to the circumstances, what you’ve tried, what has helped and what hasn’t helped, and so on. Other participants ask questions in order to build a complete picture of the situation.

Now it’s Joe’s turn, who runs a busy retail store. ‘Well’, he says, ‘my problem is my 2IC. He always takes his morning break, no matter how busy we are. He just ups and heads for the kitchen at 10 o’clock on the dot. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it does. You just don’t walk out on a shop full of customers. He’s so selfish, it drives me nuts.’

‘How is the rest of his performance?’ asks one of the other participants.

‘Fantastic!’ says Joe. ‘I taught him all he knows! It’s just this morning break business that really gets up my nose. It’s just plain selfish.

‘So he’s good at his job’, summarises another participant. ‘What about things like timekeeping in general? Is he a “clock watcher”?’

‘No, he isn’t at all. In fact’, says Joe, ‘he’s always first in in the mornings, puts the coffee on, and has a quick tidy-up where it’s needed. He’s very dependable like that’.

‘And his other breaks? Lunch and so on?’ asks someone else.

‘He generally works through lunch when we’re busy and waits for a lull to eat. Same with the afternoon break — he takes it when we aren’t busy. It’s just this morning break that’s such a problem. I really need to bring it under control.’

At this point, you notice the other participants are exchanging glances. Bottom line: We’re faced with an assistant manager who seems to be perfect in every way, except that he always takes his morning break.

Part one of the program carries on, with you and the other participants developing your approach to your under-performing team member(s) and considering what you plan to say. You then role play it with another participant, get feedback from the other role player and other participants who are observing, and polish and refine your approach until you’re comfortable with it.

Joe takes his turn. Despite considerate feedback from the others, he remains adamant that he needs to deal with the assistant manager’s selfish insistence on taking his morning break at the appointed time.

At the end of Part one, you return to your various jobs around the country to put your performance management plans into action. Eight weeks later, you all reconvene for Part two. You begin by going around the table and hearing how everyone got on. When Joe’s turn comes, here’s what he says:

‘You know, it was funny. I got us a coffee and called him in. I knew exactly what I was going to say and opened my mouth to say it, just like we practiced. And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t my 2IC who was selfish — it was me who was selfish! Blessed with a great 2IC who gets in early every morning to make coffee, carries out his duties to perfection, takes all his breaks except for that morning break as and when it suits the rest of us and our customers, and I’m complaining about that one little thing!

‘So I asked him how he was going and brought the conversation around to the morning break. Turns out, he’s absolutely starving by 10 am, having got up early, got the kids dressed, fed and ready for school, rushes off to the store with nothing but a bit of toast, if that. I have to admit it — it was me who was selfish. I thanked him for his stellar work and that was the end of that.’

You and the others let out a big sigh of relief. Disaster averted.

Here’s my take on what’s going on. When, like Joe, something irritates you (but not others) to distraction and when you put a label on it (‘selfish’), it’s a sign you’re looking in your ‘psychic mirror’. Psychologists call this projection. We do it whenever we attach a characteristic to another person that really belongs to us. It might be qualities we don’t want to own up to (being selfish, or inconsiderate, or rude or whatever) and, rather than acknowledge we have this unwanted quality ourselves, it’s easier on the ego to point the finger at someone else.

Fortunately for Joe and for his 2IC, Joe realised he was looking in his psychic mirror and that he was the one being selfish in resenting his assistant manager taking his morning break, especially in light of his excellent performance in other areas. Not an easy admission to yourself or to a group of colleagues. Like they say: The truth will set you free. But first it may piss you off.