Know When to Reprimand or Pursue a Teaching Moment

Nancy was hired into an entry-level position in Human Resources immediately after college graduation. Her advantage with her new employer was that she was previously an intern with the company. Nancy showed work ethic, curiosity, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to do whatever was needed to complete a job.

For two years Nancy had shown similar behaviors while serving as an intern. During the past year, her actions observed were not consistent. She began voicing disapproval when requested to complete activities she did not want to do. In addition, she would show what was perceived to be “contempt” for individuals on the management team. For example, an Executive Vice President requested Nancy to post a position and then create a recruiting plan for that respective position. All of this activity was well within Nancy’s job description and more importantly well within her skill level and proven ability. For some reason, Nancy’s response was more in the realm of defiance to the EVP by asking, “Why are we hiring for this position? Don’t we have plenty of people currently that can do that job? This position is not needed until next year; why are you having me do all this work now? We’ll find candidates and then put them off until next year? This doesn’t make any sense!”

The EVP went to Nancy’s boss and shared the story above. Her boss thanked the EVP. In addition Nancy’s boss replied with, “Oh, Nancy is still young. She’s just in one of her moods. You know how that generation is these days. I know Nancy has been moody lately. I’ll look into the circumstances, thank you again.”

Nancy’s boss pondered this current incident. Her boss started thinking that this was not the first time for this outburst and she began to wonder why Nancy is acting out. Could it be:

  • Nancy is looking for a new job?
  • Something in her personal life? (i.e. Breakup with her boyfriend?)
  • The EVP said something in a way that was interpreted by Nancy to be disrespectful?
  • Nancy is bored in her current role and needs to be given more responsibility?
  • During their next scheduled one-on-one, Nancy’s boss shared with her the story the EVP presented. Her boss asked what happened and why she replied to the EVP as she did.

    Their history of open and honest conversations in the past supported Nancy to share her thoughts. Nancy presented the following as to why she reacted the way she did and why she was upset.

    Her boss, being a thoughtful, insightful, and soulful leader, responded with courage to each discussion-point:

    1. Nancy: “I don’t understand why I have to do all this extra work when I know I have three months to fill the position. And, this EVP won’t do his share to follow our hiring process. I will have to do all this extra work just because.”

    Boss: “What the EVP requested is not out of line. They are anticipating their needs for the next year. Instead of being upset about the “extra” work, next time ask “why” the EVP wants to start searching so far in advance. Seek to understand and get clarity before judging.”

    2. Nancy: “After two years I thought I would be closer to a promotion to the next level. And now we’re preparing for our annual review process and it got me thinking how hard I work compared to individuals in other departments yet I don’t get paid as much as they do.”

    Boss: “You chose this career path. You were provided the reality of the career path along with potential compensation levels commensurate with levels of promotion. If you want to be compensated as people in other departments, you have a choice to move into another department. I will support you and ensure you are seriously considered.”

    3. Nancy: “Why don’t I get included in on the really important decision making discussions? How else will I learn about the different areas of the business and be able to participate in decision making in the near future?”

    Boss: “I include you in on all decision-making done in this department. Ultimately, I have final say for this department; ultimately, the CEO has final say for the company. If you feel this is not enough, I understand. I will do my best to include you in more decision making as it relates to our specific area.”

    4. Nancy: “I’ve asked you to give me more responsibility and more opportunities to grow and all you do is give me more work from your piles.”

    Boss: “I have given you projects to complete for the past two years. Your work has been excellent. What you haven’t done is taken on the respective areas as your responsibility. You continue to give me the completed work and then ask for more. For example, for the past two years I have given you the annual enrollment process to prepare for insurance selection. This year, I asked you to speak with our current broker and work with them to understand the pricing. I then asked you to call other brokers, names provided, to compare pricing. Your response was, ‘why speak with other brokers when we have this one.'”

    This was an opportunity for you to take ownership for the insurance area of the company. This was a teaching/learning exercise for you to become the in-house expert, someone I would go to in the future. Instead, you turned it into a “why me?” conversation rather than view it as a growth opportunity. You are as culpable as the firm in your development and professional growth.”

    While Nancy’s boss was frustrated while listening to Nancy’s “complaints,” she saw an opportunity to help her direct report learn and grow. She could have simply reprimanded Nancy for her immaturity and shortsightedness in the situation. However, great leaders always have the opportunity to manage and teach based on the respective individual and the corresponding circumstances.

    The choice is yours!