Some days stand out in your memory and not in a good way. And sometimes it’s because of something that you got wrong. Really wrong. I make mistakes — fewer than I used to, but I admit that I still make a mess of things every so often.
Back in the late 90s, I was running a multi-million dollar marketing campaign as we were rolling out our broadband services across the country. We were everywhere online, and we were running radio, billboard, and even side-of-bus ads. It was big time. And then it happened — the creative in one of our ads that performed very well in California fell flat in St. Louis. We were losing money fast.
I strolled into my boss’s office to deliver the bad news, and she said, “I am disappointed in you.”
Ouch. I was working 80 hours a week, and she was disappointed in me. Let me tell you, that hurt. My head slumped.
I am sure she saw the immediate effect — the change in my posture, the concave shoulders and bowed head. No one wants to hear words like that. They leave a mark, especially from someone you respect.
Everyone has low points that they wish they could go back and click “undo,” and I may have witnessed that moment for my boss. But I also believe that everyone has the capacity to grow and change, even the “disappointed.”
If you are in a position of managing others, perhaps you remember a moment like this — where you told an employee that you were disappointed in them.
You were probably not trying to intentionally cause harm. You hoped to challenge them the best way you know how. At some point, you internalized that message, and it became part of your modus operandi. And now you say it without thinking how hurtful it is to hear.
But saying “you disappointed me” is not only a huge morale-killer, but it backfires and reveals more about you than anyone else. You:
You do not see your employees as colleagues working together toward a shared goal, and you are not showing appreciation for their effort. And your words reveal a skewed parent-child dynamic, in which the focus has become your approval rather than the work itself.
These words have such a sense of finality that they would bring anyone to a crushing halt. You essentially show a lack of faith that the other person can change and grow from the experience. You also make them question their own competence in the job.
You think that you are maintaining high standards, but you show that you are a harsh judge of people who are simply trying their best. Disappointment should be a last resort and should be reserved only for people who do not give their full effort.
You think you are calling out the other person’s shortcomings, but if you dig deep, you will find you are mainly disappointed in your own effort. Your expectation did not match up with the reality of the situation, and in frustration, you lashed out at your team member.
This is actually the most important — as the manager, you own the work of people who report to you. Their work is your achievement or lack thereof. If they have a problem, it is your responsibility to help them solve it. It is not your job to point fingers, deflect blame, and pronounce them a failure.
Your team needs your leadership, not your condemnation.
We all wish there were a quick antidote to undo the harm that our words can cause, but many times the damage is done. The best that anyone can do is understand the situation and determine what must be done to remedy the problem. And then later on, go back and work through how to avoid it in the future.
By the way, this is what my boss quickly did as I hung my head. She realized we were collectively at fault, and that I was working hard — really hard — and driving the business forward in almost every possible way.
Mistakes are going to happen, and people will screw up. In every circumstance, be the leader your team deserves, who will help them pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Stand up for them and help them become their best. Be their best advocate at all times. And then you can smile and congratulate yourself for a [team] job well-done.
Have you ever been told, “You disappointed me?”