Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Please just tell me I'm great."

This post was co-authored with human resources guru Lisa Youngdahl, SPHR, HCS.

The Atlantic recently published an interesting piece by psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb.  In it, she contends that the cult of self-esteem is dooming our kids to unhappy adulthoods.   The idea is that as parents we are trying so hard to make our kids feel happy and seem successful, regardless of the reality around them, that we are not preparing them for life’s ups and downs.  The Atlantic’s cover art summarizes the idea perfectly – a trophy adorned with a soccer player completely missing a kick with the tag “good try.”

This trend has been going on in corporate America as well.   Employees are sometimes so sensitive about feedback that we either sugar coat or just hold back key data to avoid hurting feelings.  The worry is that the employee might leave at an inconvenient time (“I must get this next release over the finish line before I talk to Sally”).  The informal office network is powerful and we wouldn't want to harm morale.

Management doesn’t necessarily fare any better.  The dying art of the exit interview is the proof in the pudding.   Companies will often throw out softball questions and lap up the pleasant answers from departing employees who don’t want to burn any bridges.  “I loved it here but just got a surprise opportunity that I didn’t feel I could pass up.”   Yawn.

It’s almost as if we all want to be lied to for the sake of keeping a smile on every face.  “Please just tell me I’m great.” 

Some refreshing honesty and self-awareness every once in a while probably wouldn’t hurt.  Take some time to be frank with yourself about strengths and weaknesses.  Strengthen your company’s exit interview process so that you’re asking hard, probing questions and reporting the blunt answers anonymously to management.  Tell a subordinate what they could have done better on the last assignment.  It doesn’t have to be cruel, rude or loud, but direct communication is ultimately…well, great therapy.

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