Hey Boss: Stop Telling Me I Disappointed You

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:

Show disrespect
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.

Ignore learning
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.

Condemn quickly
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.

Display insecurity
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.

Avoid accountability
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?”

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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  1. Christopher

    I agree to a extent. I have been told i have disappointed others. Considering all circumstances though, i disagree fully, no transparency, same questions, not one clear answer. I am not trying to be mean or hard on anybody, but it honestly seems everyone points fingers at me, completely gave up on me, and i am currently the one person looking out for myself, never complaining just asking, hey you, why you always pointing the finger at all times? First to always grade and fail me, and i am currently unemployed, before finding a new job, where am i going to sleep? I never authorized my dad to decide how what and where i am suppose to always do, please i ask try harder as this is a serious subject to me and i am not informed of much. Heard somone graduated. Still optomistic but can we please come to the bargaining table? I always give infinite numbers of retries and chances. Never give up. Always move forward. Seriously. Stop lying and wasting money, no one has informed me much, only reason why i am writing so much is the insanity and now i again repeatedly told what to do, how to live, yes it is true. It is all my fault and i am selfish. Sarcastic, not trying to be mean but it is insane and constantly ridiculous. Parents even forgot what studies i have participated in and what the results were. I am officially one of the few and only ones left, asking how come you all give up on me? I never gave up on myself or anyone else. You all pass, just try a lot harder please. I am not a nincompoop, seriously. I want everyone to win, losers too. Just frustrated i guess, hey seriously, asked repeatedly for my medicine and i have no one helping me, i have asked repeatedly, medicine please.


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