Dear Crucial Skills,
Do you have any tips for talking with employees who do the bare minimum but still expect to be promoted and given high performance appraisals?
Dear Noble Manager,
I am going to start with what I see as a fairly safe assumption: you are a manager of people. Because of that assumption, I want to share an idea with you before I answer your question. One of my favorite quotes on management is from one of my favorite management scholars, the esteemed Clayton Christensen (1952-2022).
Your role is noble indeed! And yet sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. If you are at all like many of the managers I have heard from over the past few years, you are exhausted, frustrated, burned out, and just hanging on. Management is hard. Really hard. And just as you are digging deep into your own reserves to do your job, here comes one of your employees, asking for more. Maybe they’re young, maybe they’re new. Hopefully they’re eager. Possibly they’re demanding. At their best, they are ambitious. At their worst, they are entitled.
So, how do you talk with an employee who is doing the bare minimum and expecting great rewards? Based on my conversations with other managers, I wonder if it’d be more accurate to say your question is this: How do I tell them that they aren’t ready, that they need to do more, that their expectations are unrealistic? All fair questions. But in light of the quote from Dr. Christensen above, I suggest a reframe of your question.
How can you help an unready or underserving employee learn and grow into the promotion or appraisal they seek? If you are in the business of helping people learn and grow, then this moment (when someone asks for a promotion they don’t deserve) is a crucial moment, a moment with the potential for great learning and growth.
Here are four tips to help navigate that moment.
Reframe How You See Them
Let me assume that you have worked long and hard to get where you are today. You may therefore find it mildly irritating (or even downright infuriating) to have someone younger and newer come along and blithely expect to be given what you have earned. You may judge that person as entitled, foolish, or ungrateful. If this is even close to the story you are telling yourself about your employee, stop.
In any conversation, our perspective of others reveals more about us than them. You need to reframe how you are seeing this person. Advocating for yourself, speaking up, and asking for career opportunities are all incredibly good things. Reframed, here is a person who is asking for career development and mentorship. Think of them as someone who is leaning in. Seeing them differently will change how you show up in the conversation. Seeing them in a positive light will increase the likelihood of having a positive conversation.
Be Specific about Expectations
It sounds like there is a clear gap between what this person does and what they need to do in order to be promoted. Describe that gap with specificity. What are you now seeing from them? What do you need to see before you could promote them? Describe both of these in a way that makes it clear to your employee what the gap is.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of saying “You need more experience” or “You need to be here for X amount of time before you can be considered for a promotion.” That is a cop-out. If they need more experience, explain why. What kind of experience do they need? Can you help them gain that experience?
Compare and Contrast
Sometimes, even when we are explicit about expectations, the other person may still not understand what “good” looks like. You may need to show them what good or great performance is. Identify someone on your team or in your organization who is a top performer, ideally in the role your employee wants to move into. Create an opportunity for your employee to observe that person. What does he or she do differently than others? Why does it matter? Ask your employee to compare their own behaviors, interactions, and deliverables to this top performer. Let your employee know how you see their performance compared to that of this top performer.
Be Candid about Limitations
Organizations and industries have different opportunities for growth. In a high-growth industry during the boom times, it may be very easy to do the bare minimum and still get promoted simply because of the organization’s rapid growth. In slower growth industries or times, it may be much harder to get that next promotion. Be honest about this. Your employee likely has friends or former colleagues working in different organizations who are getting promoted without doing anything particularly exceptional. So they may think they should be promoted too. If you are not in a rapid growth organization, say so. Help your employee understand what a career path looks like at your organization and how that might be different from their “roommate’s sister’s best friend’s company.”
As you do that, be sure to help them understand the value of working for your organization. Perhaps you don’t have a promotion to offer them, but is there anything else you can offer them? Remember, as we reframed our perspective, this is not necessarily an entitled brat looking for the easy path up. Think of them as an eager climber who wants to grow and contribute. Helping them do that is the true job of a people manager.