If you work for an organization of some size, chances are you have an official personnel file stored away in some administrative entity. This file contains all sorts of official documentation relating to you, including copies of any documented performance reviews, promotions, awards, and requests for a variety of personnel actions. Management reviews these files periodically and they may play an important role in some of your career decisions, especially when they involve negative outcomes. I have always thought that there is something in everybody’s personnel file to justify almost any administrative outcome.
But in my experience, there is another body of information about each of us, not in written form, composed primarily of impressionistic, perception-based, subjective, judgmental, and often biased views. These views involve our personalities, behavior patterns, quality of output, 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 as anything contained in our official personnel files. Moreover, if in your work situation you have no official file, these views are essentially all your clients, customers, or bosses have upon which to base their judgments about you.
I refer to this body of views as YOUR HALLWAY FILE. It is how your colleagues, bosses, clients, customers, etc. see you as an individual at work and what they talk about when referring to you — figuratively in the hallway — usually when you are not around. The impressions, perceptions of us, and views in our hallway files are long-lasting and can have a powerful influence on how others interact with us and on our career progression.
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 their professional 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 it is something in our own hallway file that 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, their overbearing ego or selfishness, the off-the-wall and inappropriate comments they make at all the wrong times, their tendency to take everything personally, or the frequency with which they insist on falling on their sword. The point is that 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, for that is 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 task 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 to — 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 in addressing the need for behavior change.
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 .