I had a VP in an organization say to me recently, in response to hearing some employee feedback, “we have empowered them, and every time we do, they screw it up”. My response was, “so you are the only one who can do it right?”  Upon reflection, it was not my most skillful moment.  But this exchange got me thinking.

I know employees let us down, disappoint us, and maybe don’t bring their best at times. But to believe that a group of people are not smart, interested and motivated to do a good job on a daily basis is an assumption many of us carry around, even if for a moment. I would suggest that there is a limiting belief to this assumption. If we believe this about the people who work for us, we will struggle to be a great coach and manager of people.

Put it this way: in any situation where an employee lets us down or “makes a mess of things”, there could be multiple reasons why that situation occurred.

Examples include: maybe the manager wasn’t clear about the deliverable; the employee didn’t well understand the expectation; there is skill gap in what the employee can do; there is a lack of belief in why the work matters or how it connects to the bigger picture. Any one of these could contribute to a work deliverable not meeting a manager’s expectation.

Back to the first example, what is very common and more likely the case in this example, is that the employee did not have the benefit of knowing exactly what was inside their manager’s head. The employee didn’t know the blueprint of exactly what he/she wanted, what the expectation was, or even what the full context was.

Sometimes as managers we believe we have been clear, provided all the support needed and shared all of the information. However, what is true about human beings and communication is that it is much harder than we assume to be fully understood and to understand each other.

Communication is not merely talking. Real communication is a delicate dynamic that requires an earnest interest in listening to the other party to understand as well as asserting one’s needs.

It is also requires a healthy relationship where both parties feel they are respected and have space to provide their opinion. In other words, I believe those leaders who are attending to their relationships with their employees on a regular basis, in even small ways, do better in communication and achieving results overall. And let’s face it—these leaders are much more fun and rewarding to work for.

So next time you find yourself questioning whether “they will make a mess of things” – ask yourself, have I really done everything possible to have this work out?

Have I been skillful at communicating and ensuring this person knows I have time and space to listen? Or am I merely attributing blame to the most convenient body? What do I really believe about this person and their ability and desire to do a good job?

As Managers, we still have an important role to play in our employees’ success, even when we are fully empowering them.

Joanne Spalton

Senior Consultant, Kwela Leadership