You Can’t Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear


A vice president presented the following challenge to me, “I have an excellent division manager who knows our product and strategies better than anyone I’ve seen.”

“I anticipate a ‘but’ coming,” I responded.

“Yes, his people skills are among the worst.  Customers love him but he berates and embarrasses staff.  He is very argumentative with me and the president.  His vocabulary is filled with demeaning curse words.  Many have complained and three long-time, high-performers have quit.”

“I assume that you have talked to him.”

“Yes, many times.”

“So you want me to coach him on his people skills?”

“That’s right.”

“His behaviors are so hard-wired, he is very likely incapable of making significant, lasting improvements in his ability to work with people.”

I continued to explain that no matter how good you are at coaching, you will not likely convert a narcissistic-neurotic-whining-argumentative employee into considerate-cooperative-respectful team player.

When dealing with extremely disruptive people, my experience suggests that you have two choices.  One, put up with them the way they are; or two, remove them.

The “silk purse, sow’s ear” proverb—meaning that you are not likely to convert unrefined, dirty and base behavior into refined and desirable—apparently emerged in the mid-1500’s.  Some still don’t get it.

 

Jack Welch’s Approach to Appraisals


I like Jack Welch’s (the very successful, former CEO of General Electric) approach to performance appraisals.

Manager presents to the employee a handwritten sheet of paper.  The left column lists the manager’s view of employee’s achievements.  The right column contains items the employee could do better.  Both lists focus on performance metrics and team behaviors.

Manager and employee engage in a meaningful conversation.  Manager gives examples, “Your error rate is less than .03 percent, almost a ten percent improvement over last period.” “I like that you went out of your way to help our new engineer learn our software tool.”

Sum up by reporting, “Shelly, you are in the top twenty percent of our employees, and I’ll recommend a good pay increase.” Or, “Jackson, your overall performance puts you in the solid seventy percent of our team and your raise will reflect that.  I would like to see improvement in meeting deadlines and reducing errors.  I’ll help you with those.

Or, “Alford, I’m disappointed that, after considerable training, your response time is still the slowest in our group.  Let me help you find another position that is a better fit.”

Conduct these interviews at least twice a year and allow about thirty minutes for each session.

When The Pronoun “I” May Be More Effective Than “We”


While jointly writing checks to pay bills, one party says to another, “We need more stamps.”  While the first party may simply be acknowledging a need, he/she is more likely, by implication, making a request of the second party to buy stamps.  Communication by implication is fraught with risks.

Consider these implied messages from mangers to employees.

“We need to be more responsive to clients.”

“We need to improve our on-time deliveries.”

“We need to reduce overtime.”

In each of these examples, the person hearing “we,” may not see the need to do anything differently because the manager has retained co-ownership of the issue.  Consider making the requests with the pronoun “I.”

“I would like for you to be more responsive to our clients.”

“I want you to improve your on-time deliveries.”

“I would like for you to reduce overtime in your department.”

By using the pronoun “I,” the manager owns the expectation and more clearly assigns the responsibility for achieving the expectation to the employee.

I understand the importance of teamwork and I get “there is no “I” in team.  I also believe that leaders who use the pronoun “I” more clearly identify their expectations.  And they do so without diminishing teamwork.