You are a high-ranking successful administrator in your organization, which often means you have taken on too many jobs and done them too well.
This, in turn, has led to more assignments.
However, you believe help is at hand because you’ve hired Jane, a terrific senior person, to lighten the load.
She is qualified to assume some high-level responsibilities and manage the detail work. Jane is personable and seems to be well-liked by her colleagues.
But soon you begin to notice that she is inattentive to detail and often displays questionable judgment.
Her reports are so full of misspellings and incomplete sentences that you feel compelled to review each one before it goes out.
Jane annoys clients with questions she should be able to answer.
After several snafus, you feel you must carefully monitor her work.
You’ve brought this to her attention several times, and each time she responds with an appropriate level of contrition: “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I messed up.” Or: “I can’t seem to please you. I feel terrible about this.”
On the surface, she appears to take responsibility for her behavior. But the problem persists, and with each passing day your resentment increases.
Jane has successfully achieved “reverse delegation.” Instead of reducing your workload, she has increased it, draining your valuable time and energy.
Your repeated explicit feedback meets with seemingly sincere regret and heartfelt apologies, but nothing changes. Your frustration mounts. You find yourself being impatient and short-tempered. But when Jane tells you, apologetically, that she can’t seem to please you, you wonder if you are being harsh and unfair.
Although dealing with subordinates has always been your strong suit, you experience powerlessness and self-doubt.
When Jane alienates yet another client, you lose your temper and berate her loudly in public, behavior that is out of character for you.
As a general rule, the boss sets the goals and standards in the workplace, and employees attempt to respond effectively.
When employees fall short, they are concerned and take steps to improve.
But in this situation, Jane has, in effect, turned the tables.
Instead of worrying about her own performance, Jane has managed, perhaps unconsciously, to engender feelings of self-doubt in her boss.
Nearly all experienced bosses have had their Jane moment.
In recounting their experiences, even the most professional of bosses found themselves behaving uncharacteristically by expressing frustration or even rage.
How might one understand this state of affairs?
Unlike the typical concerned employee, Jane does not take steps to identify the source of her poor performance, nor does she work on a plan to improve.
Instead, Jane merely expresses regret that she is not satisfying the boss’s demands.
Her congenial response to critical feedback creates the illusion that she wants to change and is trying her best to do so. But the subtext of her message belies those assertions, conveying the impression that her boss’s expectations are unrealistic and unachievable.
When Jane characterizes the boss as “impossible to satisfy,” she shifts the focus from her inadequate performance onto the boss’s ostensibly unreasonable expectations.
She asserts, “I can’t seem to please you,” as if the boss is at fault.
No wonder the boss is left feeling irritable, helpless, powerless and even enraged.
Despite understandable frustrations in dealing with employees like Jane, a manager must recognize that the seemingly manipulative behaviors of these employees are often outside their own awareness, which makes them challenging to manage.
It can be very useful to obtain consultation from an objective colleague, a skilled human resources professional, an executive coach or an organizational consultant to develop a strategy for employees like Jane.
To maintain your perspective and emphasize the seriousness of the situation, consider having a third person attend a feedback meeting with the employee. In this meeting, provide concrete, descriptive feedback about the performance concerns.
Specify behaviors that must change. Make recommendations on ways the employee might develop the skills to address your concerns. Be explicit about how and when change will be measured, as well as the consequences if performance does not improve.
I am a psychologist, psychoanalyst, executive coach and Johns Hopkins faculty member steps from the Washington DC border in Chevy Chase, Maryland. If you are interested in psychotherapy, psychoanalysis or executive coaching you are welcome to call me: 301.6569650.