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Appreciate a person's strengths as well as challenges
Elaine showed me how to deliver feedback in a way that the receiver can embrace it.
I had only worked for Henry Ford Health System for a few months when my friend and colleague Elaine came into my office to talk with me about a staff member she was having trouble with. We often consulted with each other in this way, and in fact, shared several staff, so I settled in to hear what she had to say. She told me that she had already given this therapist a couple of warnings, and so, after this latest violation of department policies, she had no choice but to fire him. She said she regretted having to do that, but she couldn’t let him get away with it. It would set a bad example for others.
Elaine had a slender, athletic build, and short-cropped hair and dressed in the career-woman skirts and pant suits of the era. She was well-liked and respected by her staff, and even though they saw her as approachable, they also knew she expected a high level of professionalism from them.
I listened while we shared a bag of our favorite stress-reliever, Peanut M&Ms. I remember feeling relieved that this employee worked for her and not me, and I told her so. I had fired only one person in my professional life to this point, and after he yelled, screamed, and ultimately threatened me before storming out, I determined that it had not gone well. I didn’t care to experience that again.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,” she said as she strode out of my office, bag of M&Ms in tow. I told her I’d be right next door if she needed me. She just smiled.
Elaine and I worked side-by-side all ten years I worked at Henry Ford Hospital’s Maplegrove Center. Our mutual friend, Clare, introduced us to each other in the early 1980s, and Elaine recommended me for a job there. She served as residential chemical dependency treatment director, and, although I was hired as the manager of outpatient chemical dependency services, I was soon promoted to a director position on par with Elaine. We brought different strengths to our respective positions, and when our administrative director thought it would be fun to mix things up, he switched our roles, believing that we were interchangeable (we weren’t!)—but that’s a story for another time.
On the day of the firing, I watched as Elaine followed the therapist into her office and closed the door. I listened intently through the cinder block walls between our offices, hoping to catch a thread of what was happening, but I could hear nothing—no raised voices, no shouting, no threats. After some time had gone by, I heard her door open, and jumped up from my desk to peek down the hallway. As I did, I watched the man reach down to give Elaine a hug. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll come back tomorrow and get my stuff.”
“OK,” Elaine said, “Stop in and see me before you go.”
Stop in and see me? She had just fired the guy and he was thanking and hugging her? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
As I watched him walk down the hall, I slid into Elaine’s office. “What happened?” I asked anxiously. “Didn’t you just fire him?”
“Yeah,” she replied, as she reached for the now almost empty bag of M&Ms and sat down. “It went pretty well.”
“How did you do that?” I asked, “He hugged and thanked you.” I still couldn’t believe it.
She leaned back in her desk chair and smiled again. “It’s all about helping the person understand why their current position isn’t the best fit for them. Then you just focus their energies on how they can make better use of their talents and abilities. That’s all I did. He was ready to leave. He just needed a push,” she said, as if it was as easy as offering him the job in the first place.
Wow! I was amazed. I determined right then to study her approach and ask for her guidance the next time I faced a similar situation. Granted, some egregious violations must be dealt with swiftly without consideration of the offender’s feelings, but the first time I received a thank-you hug from someone I fired, I knew who I had to thank.
Elaine and I have lost touch over the years, but whenever I have bad news to share with someone about their performance, whether in a professional or volunteer role, I think of her. I’m grateful that she taught me how to see the whole person, to appreciate their strengths as well as their challenges, so I could help them decide for themselves what’s best for them.
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