Management Matters: Hoping for Perfect Employees is Not a Management Strategy

Wouldn’t it be great if employees were perfect? They would learn quickly. They wouldn’t make mistakes. They would show initiative and would require little involvement on the part of the manager other than providing updates. In fact, the best employees would require little involvement on the part of the boss at all.

No one is perfect. There are times when every professional will fall short: a deadline is missed, a task is poorly executed, or the desired results are not achieved.

When that occurs,there are two things that might happen that would make it a learning opportunity:

  1. The boss uses the situation as a learning vehicle and provides coaching and feedback to support developmental growth.
  2. The employee asks for input from the boss about how to improve performance and avoid repeating the situation.

But employees don’t always request feedback from the boss. Why not? Because often, the cost outweighs the benefit. Admitting weakness is tough on the ego. Most people’s desire to appear perfect and highly competent at work is strong. How many people want to bring up about poor job performance with the boss?

Learning on the job isn’t always valued at the workplace. There are times when an employee avoids asking for feedback because they don’t want to appear like they don’t know all of the aspects of the job, even when it is obvious from the outcome that they don’t know all of the aspects of the job.

Providing feedback is a leadership skill that is critical to developing talent at every level in an organization. However, many managers are challenged in this area:

  • Intolerant: The boss who has no patience for failure, substandard behavior, or mistakes. They tend to be critical and often get angry when errors are made. The boss puts all of the responsibility for poor performance on the employee. They rarely consider what role they may have played in the inferior result. When the employee feels blamed, they are motivated to avoid opportunities to ask for or receive feedback.
  • In-the-Weeds: The boss who doesn’t trust employees and thinks that they are not capable of handling things as the boss would have handled them. They focus on all of the details. The boss spends their time looking for errors rather than explaining the logic of their approach. Employees are not interested in this amount of scrutinyso they work to make things appear as if everything is going well. When the boss is making sure employees think there is only one right way to accomplish tasks, it robs them of their independence, initiative, and creativity. It results in employees being overly focused on concealing errors rather than getting the job done.
  • Shirker: The boss who hates to give bad news. They simply avoid ever having that opportunity. If they can’t avoid giving feedback, they delay it until the employee has a hard time connecting the feedback to their actions on the job. The performance stays uncorrected for a long time and the likelihood that the employee repeats the behavior increases. The employee often has no idea their performance is below standard. If the boss thinks the situation is temporary and might go away, they can convince themselves that not saying something has no negative consequence. Dodging the issue also allows the boss to avoid dealing with difficult emotions that can accompany an employee receiving improvement feedback. When a manger wants to see themselves as supportive and nurturing, improvement feedback can get in the way of a how they view themselves and creating a close relationship with employees.

Failure is a normal outcome when a risk is taken or there is an attempt to do something new or different. Yes, it’s disappointing, but not succeeding provides the opportunity to reflect and examine decisions, strategies, skill levels, abilities, resource allocations, and processes. This can ultimately lead to an improved result. Sadly, failure in the workplace often results in looking for blame, finding a scapegoat, hiding from useful information, and examining the causes that contribute to the situation. It’s not a learning mindset; it’s a win or die mindset.

Don’t think that imperfect employees and mistakes mean you can’t have a demanding culture. Employees should definitely be given stretch assignments that help them grow professionally. Many organizations keep the people who have been in charge of failed initiatives because if you fire that person, you will lose all the things that they have learned from the experience. When people are encouraged to share the things they have learned from not succeeding, the organization gains insights into how to learn from mistakes and allows people to evaluate how to prevent future errors.

Making mistakes can often mean that a career hangs in the balance. It is very hard to overcome the fear and potential cost of admitting mistakes when the stakes are high.

Not admitting that people are imperfect and that we can learn more from talking about what happened and how to improve things for the next time guarantees that little learning will happen. We won’t be able to work for a better outcome – we’ll only be able to hope for one.

I’ve found that crossing your fingers and hoping for perfection in others in not a strategy!

Joni Daniels is Principal of Daniels & Associates, a management training and development consulting practice that specializes in developing human resources in the areas of leadership and management training, interpersonal effectiveness and efficiency, skill- building, and organizational development interventions. With over 25 years of experience, she is a sought after resource for Fortune 500 clients, professional organizations, higher education, media outlets and business publications. Joni can be reached at

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