If you work for an organization of some size, chances are you have an official personnel file housed in HR. Management reviews these files periodically and they may play an important role in some of your career decisions, especially when they involve negative information. If you are your own boss, such an official file doesn’t exist.
But in my experience, there is another body of information about each of us, that represents how others, especially our bosses, subordinates, workers and clients see and talk about us when we’re not around. I refer to this body of views as YOUR HALLWAY FILE.
Your hallway file consists of impressions, perception-based, subjective judgments and opinions often filtered through bias. These views involve our personalities, behavior patterns, like-ability, judgment, honesty, quality of our work, professionalism, fit for our organization’s culture, and career potential. Believe me when I tell you that these views can weigh just as heavily — if not more so — in determining our workplace success than anything contained in an official file, and they are long-lasting.
How are our hallway files compiled? Simple, we personally author them every day by how we act, behave, speak, and comport ourselves at work. We are their creators, while others are there consumers. For most individuals, the content of their hallway file is relatively benign and has only minor impact — positive or negative — on our success. It is when an individual’s hallway file contains impressions and views that are derogatory, negative, and professionally damaging that the trouble begins. A weak factual base for some of the content of a negative hallway file is irrelevant. The perceptions of others are what they are.
If there is something in our own hallway file we believe needs changing — assuming we are aware of the content we wish to alter — at least we are in control of our own behavior. It will take time but changing how we behave and interact with others will eventually change how others see us.
As a manager, however, you are often confronted with a subordinate whose negative hallway file will almost certainly cause them professional harm and your dilemma is what to do about it. Perhaps it is their incessant negative attitude about everything, or their overbearing ego or selfishness. Perhaps it is the off-the-wall and inappropriate comments they make at all the wrong times, or their tendency to take everything personally. The point is as their boss, it is your responsibility to help them succeed so what do you do?
It helps a great deal if your subordinate is aware that they have a problem and desires your help in addressing it. That’s half the battle. Your managerial role is then to mentor, coach, monitor progress, and provide the encouragement needed to sustain the necessary behavior change on their part.
It is a much more difficult when the subordinate must first be made aware that they have some behavioral issues that are damaging their professional progress and then be convinced to do something about it. Some subordinates refuse to accept the message and have no intention — or capability for — change. Some behavioral issues are so deep-seated that they are impervious to your managerial ministrations. At some point we all must assume sole responsibility for the direction our career takes.
As in so many other instances of providing feedback to others, the best you can do as a manager is to describe the behavior in question, when and where it occurs, and then detail the consequences, impact on others, and potential impact on future job success. Attempts to explore the underlying causes for professionally harmful behavior are beyond most manager’s capabilities and of little help in achieving a subordinate’s cooperation.
The best managers understand that at some point they may need to accept a subordinate’s right to determine their own fate, negative or otherwise. But the best managers refuse to allow a subordinate to wander in ignorance of a hallway file that is demonstrably harming their prospects for success at work .
* A podcast of this article can be found on Spotify: “Insights on Managing & Leading”.