It was discouraging to see that Brian's situation had deteriorated to this point. Only two years earlier, Brian had been fast-tracked into a front-line manager position. His up-beat attitude and make- it-happen work ethic had caught the attention of the company executives, who decided that he'd make a fine addition to their ranks. Yet here he was, ready to jump ship. And he hated himself for it.
"For the first time in my life, I feel like a failure. I couldn't wait to be made a manager. But now I'm convinced that I'm not cut out for it. I think the only reason I haven't quit already is because I'm too ashamed, or too competitive, to admit defeat. I hate being a manager."
I had been coaching Brian for a few months as part of a multiyear leadership program my company had developed for Brian's employer. The program had been developed for the company's high-potential leaders, and Brian had been handpicked by his boss to participate. Brian was highly regarded by the senior executives, so it was a bit surprising for me to hear that things had gotten so bad for him. Somehow this "hi-po" manager had been able to conceal his true feelings about the job from his boss and coworkers.
"It surprises me that you don't think you're cut out to be a manager, Brian.
Is it the work? The pressure? What?" I asked.
"The pressure I can deal with. I was a college athlete and I kind of like pressure. It makes things seem more important and urgent, which gets me going. And the tactical part of the work, for the most part, isn't hard. You make a plan; you break it down into a set of goals, milestones, and delivery dates; you keep it all organized on a spreadsheet; and then you work the plan."
"So what's the crux of it, buddy?" I asked. "From what you just told me, you don't find management all that hard. What I didn't hear about was the stuff you hate about managing. What about that?"
Like lava inching its way up through the earth, the frustrations that had gotten Brian to this point began bubbling to the surface. "To me, the hard part about managing, the stuff I 'hate', is all the people stuff. I hate the fact that no one shows the initiative to take on work outside their own scope. I hate the small way people think, and how the only thing they seem to care about is the itty- bitty task right in front of them. I hate having to continuously remind people about impending deadlines and that no one works with the same urgency or intensity as I do. I hate having to force people to accept changes that the company requires us to make and that are mostly in everyone's best interests. I hate all the psychoanalyzing that goes into figuring out how to get people to trust me. I also hate not being able to trust that people won't screw up and make me look bad when I assign important tasks to them. I hate having to confront people about their performance, especially when they think they're performing way better than they really are. I hate having to pry the truth out of people so that I know about problems before it's too late to solve them. And I especially hate all the crybaby excuses, finger-pointing, and shitty attitudes that get in the way of doing actual work."
The little venting moment helped Brian to purge all the surface stuff so that he could get closer to the core of the issue. After a moment his eyes got smaller, as if he'd found a shiny golden nugget while prospecting at the center of hell. He continued, "When it comes right down to it, I hate that people are either too comfortable doing things the way they've always done them or too afraid to do things differently."
Mixing Comfort and Fear
Over the years, I've coached a lot of people like Brian. Talented workers who get promoted because of their strong leadership potential, but who quickly grow frustrated with managing people who are slow to change, slow to trust, and slow getting things done. Brian's golden nugget insight is spot-on: The problem has to do with comfort and fear. Workers who are too comfortable don't exert themselves any more than they have to. They become satisfied meeting a minimum standard of performance, equating "just enough" with good enough. Like a sofa loaded down with overstuffed relatives after a holiday dinner, teams with workers who are too comfortable become lethargic and heavy with the weight of mediocrity. At the same time, workers who are too fearful play it too safe. Fearful workers set 'safe' goals, say 'safe' things, and make 'safe' choices. Because fearful workers spend far too much energy preserving what is instead of pursuing what could be, their preoccupation with safety ultimately becomes dangerous for the business.
Comfort and fear in smaller doses can be good things. Striving to gain comfort with new skills, for example, is a worthwhile goal. At the same time, fear helps workers to focus on preventing and mitigating risks by keeping them vigilant about small issues that could grow into big problems. But in higher doses, and especially when mixed together, comfort and fear become toxic, creating a situation where workers become what I call "com'fear'table."