Why Leaders Need Short Memory

When it’s difficult to forget

As a web designer, Matt was passionate about his job. He loved what he did. He’s willing to give his best every time. And he delivered too! He was one of the better performers on the team. If you want top notch work, you need him on your team.

But suddenly, things seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. This once very productive and engaged employee has turned into a shadow of his old self. His morale is shattered. He now dreads getting up to go to work each day. The love for what he does has gone cold. He could no longer give his best. His productivity is suffering.

Hold on a second! How did we get here? To understand this, let’s back up a little.

Although Matt delivered on the job, he also came with some baggage. He was a little rough around the edges. He would do a good job, but the way he did it rubbed many on the teams the wrong way. His approach could be seen as abrasive at times. Matt didn’t see it that way. He thought people should be able to hear the truth told to them even if it hurts. He didn't see eye to eye on this issue with Jenny, his manager.

But that was a long time ago. After years of feedback and coaching, Matt has come around and you can now see definite signs of improvement. He’s not completely there yet, but you could see the effort and the progress he’s making.

However, that’s not good enough for Jenny. How could she just forget the past? She knew what this guy was like! And no matter what change she may be seeing now, her already-formed opinion remains.

Jenny believes that a leopard never changes its spots. So she knows that whatever improvements she's seen in Matt are not real. Even when others who used to complain about Matt told her about the positive changes they’ve seen, she simply explained them away. After all, people don’t change!

This attitude irks Matt.

What more do I need to do? I listened to what they told me! I’ve tried to change because of all the feedback and coaching I’ve received. Still, it’s not enough! I’m tired!

As a result, they continue to butt heads. With the prolonged, ongoing confrontation with Jenny, Matt’s motivation took a nose dive. His performance started to falter. He simply hated the environment in which he now has to work. He now had to drag himself out of bed each morning.

As Jenny began to notice the change in Matt’s performance, it only reinforced the negative perception she already had about him.

Now he’s gone from being difficult to work with to downright incompetent!

What happened? This was someone who was very good at what he does. How did he suddenly become inept at doing the same job? His job responsibilities haven’t changed, so what changed? What happened to this once engaged, high performer?

Jenny started thinking of how to get rid of Matt. But before she could make a move, Matt resigned. He took another job where his zeal and enthusiasm returned. And he returned to being a good performer.

Team leaders and supervisors need very short memory when it comes to areas where their people need to improve. That’s especially true when you see them making the effort towards positive change. We need to nurture and encourage them. We should reward and recognize them for the change, even if it’s baby steps.

I understand that this is not natural for many of us. But as leaders, we need to work at it. We need a change from this natural tendency. If we don’t, and we allow past experiences to discolor present reality, we may end up losing valuable people.

If we don’t, our organizations and teams will be the worse for it.