Giving performance feedback breaks the illusion of greatness of a manager
For this article, I’d like to draw upon a concept created by Henri Wallon and popularized by French structuralist philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The concept is the stade du miroir, or “the mirror stage.” The mirror stage is when an infant first sees himself in the mirror and, by virtue of seeing an image of himself, understands for the first time that he is not an embodiment of the entire universe but is instead that he is a single individual amongst many others. In short, the infant goes from thinking he’s everything to only one thing, goes from not having an identity to having an identity, and from no external image to an image of himself external to himself, and has for the first time an understanding of the other. The scope of the infant’s identity has gone from huge (or unlimited) to that of an image of himself.
OK – but this is a blog about management skills – what does this have to do with managing?
I would like to propose that – for a manager — the act of giving performance feedback is the equivalent of the mirror stage.
I have recently written about how a new manager has been stripped of her identity the moment she becomes a manager, and how that identity is often then built up using management techniques derived from individual instincts for what good techniques are. As a result, many managers persist in a kind of ongoing limbo of amateurish techniques while trying to retain the aura of expertise that they once – but no longer – have. That manager is in the difficult position of asserting that she is expert in the domain they were a former individual contributor (IC) while simultaneously asserting that she is an expert in the managerial tasks related to overseeing that IC work.
Now, imagine a manager who never gives performance feedback to the employee. That manager is like an infant who has never seen his image in the mirror. That manager can continue to think that she is
a) Expert in the field she is managing
b) Knows more than her employees
c) She can convey what is the correct way to proceed without much effort
d) Her employees believe in 100% what she says
e) Her employee can immediately implement what she has in mind
Does this sound like any managers you know or have had in the past? This manager has not gone through the “Mirror Stage” of being a manager and confronted their limitations as a manager.
Now, imagine a manager who decides to give performance feedback to the employee.
This is the moment where the manager must test the following notions:
a) she is still an expert
b) knows more than her employee
c) the conveyance of her thoughts are 100% transmittable
d) the employee will accept 100% of what she says
e) the employee will immediately implement what was in her thoughts.
That is the way an infant thinks before the mirror stage.
Now, it rarely happens that the employee fully agrees with, accepts, understands and implements what the manager has to say when receiving performance feedback. So just as the mirror indifferently expresses to the infant that the infant is an identifiable subject, the employee, no matter how hard he tries, will not be able to preserve the manager’s sense of expertise and ultimate authority over the situation.
In some capacity, the employee will not fully agree with the manager, will not fully understand what the manager is trying to convey, and will not implement exactly what the manager had in mind. This shatters the notion that the manager has seamless authority over the employee, and the manager’s self-image of being expert, being able to convey that expertise, and to see it immediately go into action is ruined, and must be replaced by a new identity.
In short, the moment that the manager has to actually manage – and this is most likely the moment the manager gives performance feedback to an employee – the manager’s sense of greatness, effectiveness and usefulness is ruined.
And it can be interpreted as the employee’s fault.
So what I’m saying is that new managers lose their sense of self and must create a new, more limited sense of self via the act of managing. And providing performance feedback is most likely that moment.
Yet this is the common design we have for new managers. We put managers in the position where they believe that their expertise is what gives them authority, and that authority allows them to communicate transparently, and that transparent communication translates to improved employee action. Even though it doesn’t work this way.
The emerging field of Management Design seeks to design systems that do not create this fanciful expectation that managers rely on their sense of ego to have success. It is interested in creating systems that build up effective management techniques that are not reliant on the illusion of manager authority and individual excellence (and then the swift conveyance of that authority back to the employees). It is an effort to design-out the common mistakes of managers, and design-in good behaviors that make managers effective. By design, employees can then be thankful that they don’t have a bad boss and can contribute in conjunction with the manager’s efforts, rather than despite the manager’s efforts.