(This is an excerpt from Bob Mendonsa’s book, Working Choices, now available on the Kindle.)
People avoid the truth because they need to preserve various illusions. Many an employee who cheats the company out of time and occasional office supplies will become quite indignant if their integrity is questioned. Investors don’t want the company into which they’ve just poured in a chunk of their life savings to make any statements that can adversely affect the stock price. Neither employees nor investors are very strong on the ability to accept responsibility for their choices. It’s always someone else’s fault: the boss is an asshole, the company lied to me, they never told me it would be this way.
The primary illusion Americans need to have is that they are “successful,” or more accurately, that family, friends and other important luminaries believe they’re “doing well.” Consequently, a great portion of one’s self-esteem is tied to one’s occupation. Upon meeting someone for the first time, the opening question is invariably, “What do you do?” Occupation is a fundamental part of our identity within society. Hence the reason so many people become depressed when they lose their jobs, even when the loss is through no fault of their own and even though they know that organizational validation is fairly meaningless, given the number of incompetents who populate them. We lose not only our incomes but also our identities.
Since our self-image is so thoroughly tied to our jobs, it also follows that one is not going to be extremely open to hearing any kind of adverse feedback about job performance, even if such feedback is given in the most helpful manner possible. The more insecure the person, the more violent the reaction. Often a person will avoid any attempt at self-reflection by blaming the person guilty of truth-telling.
Although those of you who believe in the media babble about lean and mean companies may still not believe it, let me repeat what I said in the previous chapter: people are very rarely fired for performance in any organization. It isn’t only because the HR people, watching the company’s legal behind, make the manager go through an extensive three or four step process through which enough documentation is created to fill a row of filing cabinets. It is because it is very difficult to tell another human being that they are failing. To tell an American he or she is a failure is akin to shooting them in the heart. You are attacking their very essence, their reason for existence, their entire concept of self-worth. In telling an employee they aren’t cutting it, you are risking legal problems, threats and in some cases, the possibility of violence.
I remember listening to a psychologist on the radio after yet another workplace shooting. He said that a common trait linking perpetrators of workplace violence was their inability to accept responsibility. I would venture that the same could be said for people who file lawsuits, many of which represent the use of a legally sanctioned form of extortion. Both are weapons to use against the enemy who has punctured the mask.
So what motivation is there for a manager to tell an employee the truth? Beyond the slim possibility that the feedback might help the employee become more effective in the future, there isn’t any. Managers do not feel the need to intervene in an employee’s life simply because that employee’s parents didn’t do a very good job of instilling any responsibility in them. It’s much safer for a manager to work around the problem by making up reasons to add headcount, reassigning work to others or just doing the work oneself.
And the truth continues to suffer.