Why managers don’t give performance feedback – it hurts the ego

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I’ve recently taken a philosophical turn in the Manager by Designsm blog.  I’ve been drawing from Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore the concept of a manager ego.  The short version is this:

  1. Managers lose their identities when they become managers
  2. However, they became managers based on their ability and expertise, which is their former identity
  3. They can no longer perform those former actions, and must perform new managerial actions
  4. These managerial actions, while based on the notion of personal greatness, are, by definition, new the manager and amateurishly performed.
  5. The first time such an amateurish action (like giving performance feedback to an employee) is performed, it shatters the notion that the manager is expert, effective and useful.

This step 5 I’m calling the “Mirror Stage” of being a manager.  It’s the moment that, despite all sorts of evidence that the manager is terrific (hence the promotion to manager), there is the stunning evidence that the manager’s management technique is ineffective.

Here’s a likely – and concrete – scenario: A manager has to give performance feedback to the employee.  The manager goes in with the expectation that the employee will agree, understand and implement everything the manager says.  But this is nigh impossible.  The employee could provide his own, different perspective on the situation, may not understand what the manager is trying to get across, or may not implement exactly what the manager had in mind.  And that’s when an employee reacts well to the feedback!

What if the employee actively resists the feedback?  The employee argues with the manager, says the facts are incorrect, and even says that the manager is wrong.  There may even be an emotional reaction on the part of the employee.  This is shattering to the manager’s ego, because this simple act of giving performance feedback didn’t go well (in the managers’ mind), despite the manager having a) authority b) expertise c) a greater general talent level than the employee.

In short, the act of giving performance feedback breaks the ego of the manager and provides a rather sudden and obvious moment where it is indisputably proven that the manager is not 100% effective at managing.  So now there is now a problem associated with the act of managing.

So what are the choices a manager has?

a) The manager may look upon the employee’s perspective sympathetically, understand it, and work with the natural differences in perspective, understanding and ability to implement change.  The manager’s ego is put aside and the manager looks at it from the employee’s perspective.  Unfortunately this appears to be rare.

b) In perhaps a more common instance, the manager will resent the employee for making the manager “look bad” (another term for shattering the ego – even though I have written about how new managers naturally are likely to look bad at managing, since they are, by definition, amateurs at managing).  The manager will commonly “double-down” on the feedback, and may escalate into utilizing increasingly ineffective amateurish techniques such as yelling, complaining about the employee, or trying to get rid of the employee. As referred to in my prior article, in the boss’s context, the employee serves as a mirror into the manager’s performance, and if that performance is bad – as an amateur manager’s is likely to be – both the manager and employee are in a tense situation.  The employee inadvertently destroys the ego of the manager by being the employee, and the manager’s ego is destroyed.

Because of this, many employees will justifiably alter their behaviors to preserve the ego of their managers.  They will tell the managers what they want to hear.  They will take performance feedback without context and say they will implement it.  They will accept performance feedback that makes no sense.  They will tell the manager that he is doing a good job when he isn’t.

The manager’s ego then gets to return to the notion of being highly expert at whatever he does.  But not only is the manager’s ego as an expert maintained, the managers’ ego as a manager is maintained, even though the manager’s actions as a manager are limited to these failed attempts to manage.

All this to say that managers are put in the position to manage, but are also expected to do so using their prior conception of themselves as an individual contributor, and not their management skills.  Attempts to perform management skills are painful to the self, awkwardly performed, and subsequently avoided.   Good management practices are never developed.

So the manager begins to manage on a plane of illusion of what “good management” looks like.  Good management looks like “not being challenged by employees.”  It looks like “being able to communicate one-way.”  It looks like “being able to assume your ideas are conveyed 100%.”  And it looks like “there are no issues with how things are going on the team.”  In short, managing – without good management design — becomes an act of preserving one’s ego and never becomes an act of . . . managing.

I’d like to argue that good managing is the act of losing one’s ego:  Of constantly understanding others’ perspectives, of understanding the limits of your ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas, and of using ideas external to yourself to create a productive work environment.

This article discusses those managers who work very hard to preserve their egos – and this is a natural tendency.  But there are managers who constantly put their team above their ego.  Who learn and work at becoming better at managing, and who see success as improving the capability of their team, and not their own sense of self-worth.

The emerging field of Management Design seeks to create structures that encourage this thinking and action, and not the current default design that allows managers to put the preservation of their ego ahead of the quality of the work environment.

Management Design seeks to understand how to make it rewarding for a manager to think external to himself: To have an image or identity of himself that is not based on his personal greatness.  In other words, stop being a baby.

I’d like to hear your stories the good managers you have had.  How did they survive the “Mirror Stage” and get a sense of self that is proportionate to what they could effectively achieve as a manager?  If you are a manager, tell me your stories of how you learned to perform managerial tasks (like giving performance feedback) that, when first performed, could shatter the ego?

Related Articles:

A tool to analyze the greater forces driving your employee’s performance

Becoming a manager is a subversion of self-identity

Without management design, the new manager relies on base instincts

The new manager is an amateur at doing managerial tasks

Giving performance feedback is breaks the illusion of greatness of a manager

The Cost of Low Quality Management

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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