When Employees Disappoint: How Effective Leaders Respond

By Alesia Latson

Disappointment is inevitable for leaders. At times your people will disappoint you, so the fact that disappointment occurs isn’t the challenge. The real issue is how you respond to the disappointment.

Unfortunately, far too many leaders react to disappointment with anger and punishment. You’ve likely seen the scenario. An employee loses a key client or misses an important deadline, and the leader responds by demoting the employee, removing responsibilities, withholding vacation time, or even firing the employee.

Such consequences are nothing more than an unexamined reaction on the part of the leader – and a missed opportunity for the leader to shine. In reality, how you handle disappointment speaks volumes about your leadership style and your credibility in your organization.

To make the most of a disappointing situation and use it as the coaching opportunity it is, consider the following suggestions:

Manage Yourself Before You Confront the Employee: Before talking with an employee about a disappointing situation, you first have to manage yourself. In other words, you have to be clear on what your intention is for the conversation. Because you’re in a position of authority, what you say during these moments will have a ripple effect. Of course, this isn’t to say you aren’t justified in your anger or disappointment. However, your expression of those feelings has an impact not only on what that employee will do in the future, but also on how others view you. So before initiating the conversation, take some time to step back and get clear about what you want to have happen as a result of the meeting. Are you simply looking to vent your anger? Is the goal finding a solution to rectify the current circumstances? Or do you really want to help the employee learn and grow from the situation?

Assess Your Role in the Disappointment: As part of managing yourself, take some time to reflect on your role in the disappointment. Before you blame the entire situation on your employee, realize that, as a leader, you are ultimately responsible for your people. Ask yourself, “What role did I play?” and “How did I contribute to this disappointment?” Perhaps you didn’t give the employee enough training. Maybe you threw that person into a situation he or she was too “green” to handle. Perhaps you didn’t adequately prepare the employee for the task. Whatever the disappointing outcome was, chances are you had some role in it, even if only a small one. Acknowledge that prior to your conversation.

Assume Good Intent: When you take the stance that the employee didn’t intentionally cause the disappointment, it naturally takes the edge off your approach and any anger you may feel. In the majority of cases, that stance is accurate: The employee didn’t set out to cause harm. He or she simply made a mistake or a bad judgment call, which resulted in a less than ideal situation. Additionally, assume that the employee knows he or she messed up, feels badly, and is apprehensive about speaking with you. Therefore, any anger you display will be mild in comparison to the anger and disappointment your employee has experienced already.

Of course, if there’s been an intentional violation of an important principle, value, or standard that compromises the integrity of the organization, your anger is understandable. However, true anger should be reserved for egregious acts.

Maintain Focus: When talking to the employee, address the situation in terms of the outcome, not the person. Successful schoolteachers know that, when disciplining a student, it’s important to focus on the behavior, not the child. The same is true for business leaders. Even if the situation occurred because the employee was negligent in some way, you need to separate what happened from the employee personally.

State your disappointment in terms of the outcome, and then explore with the employee the cause in an inquisitive and coaching way rather than a punitive way. Why? Because when employees feel like the boss is scolding them, they become fearful, which decreases creativity and innovation on the job – the exact things a leader often needs to rectify a disappointing situation.

Learn from Disappointments: It’s human nature to lash out during disappointing times, and a leader often does. But remember that how you handle disappointment reflects more on you as a leader than on the person who caused the situation. Additionally, realize that the majority of disappointing moments are actually coaching moments in disguise. Wise leaders recognize this and make the most of these situations. Therefore, if you want to be viewed as a leader with courage, credibility, and reason, use the suggestions presented here the next time you feel the need to punish an employee for a wrongdoing. When you do, you won’t be disappointed in the results.

Alesia Latson is a speaker, trainer, coach, and founder of Latson Leadership Group, a consulting firm specializing in management and leadership development. With more than twenty years of experience, Alesia helps organizations and leaders expand their capacity to produce results while enhancing employee engagement. For more information on Alesia’s speaking and consulting schedule, please contact her at alesia@latsonleadershipgroup.com or visit www.latsonleadershipgroup.com.

[From the October/November 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]