…The summer of my 16th birthday I got my first job bagging groceries at a local supermarket. It didn’t pay much better than minimum wage and it was mind numbing work… but it was a first job.

Periodically, the aisle cashiers would ask the baggers to get them change from a manager working in the inventory section of the store. On one such occasion as I went to change out cash, a manager at the store directed me to complete another task (stocking shelves)… to which I told him “In a few minutes, I have to go change out a register now.” and then left to change out the cash. A few minutes later, that same manager found me again and directed me to complete a highly undesirable task (picking up garbage out of the parking lot). Confused – and more than a little humiliated, I went and did so.

Later in the day, the manager found me as we were closing up and explained that the reason he’d had me pick up the trash was because I’d ignored his instructions earlier, and he needed to see if I could follow directions. Years of dealing with young-people in entry-level positions had taught him that he needed to establish a culture of following directions from management immediately, and that if one person deviated from instructions then others would also do so in short order. And so the fact that I was working on another task at the time was besides the point. I’d been asked to do one thing by a manager and had declared I would do another. In my role – and in that culture – this wasn’t acceptable.

I understood and accepted the rationale behind the manager’s actions here, and the rest of the summer passed without incident. But over the next few months that I worked at the store I saw more than one new-hire quit or be fired because they failed the ‘trash test’.

…I won’t say that the manager’s style was bad here – he was a long-serving manager at a very successful business and had developed a people management style that produced the sorts of employees he wanted. But I also think a little more context and dialogue in such cases may have yielded him the same results with far less turnover (which even at an entry level is costly).

…I recount this story because one of the recurring lessons I’m learning as an HR person tasked with leading performance management efforts is that effective performance management often goes hand-in-hand with flexible people management.

Put another way, everyone receives feedback differently. This fact doesn’t necessarily make those that require a different style of feedback than that which his or her manager is accustomed to giving bad performers. Instead, it often just means a different approach is needed. Sometimes the required approach is so different that a person simply isn’t a good fit for a team… but not always. Recognizing when the latter versus the former is true is one of the differences between being a good or a great manager.
Ergo, I think it’s important for all managers to consider how their actions are received by the people reporting up to them. And so whether one leads a team of teenage grocery baggers, software programmers at a tech-firm, or vice presidents at a mega-cap company, effective performance management requires understanding how one’s individual directs perceive and receive messages and moderating them accordingly.

Maybe (as is often the case), I have this wrong. Let me know in the comments section below.