Handling Talent Fear

What’s the most important thing that leaders can do for their teams? That’s right, continuously coach them, so they constantly improve and get better. How often is that the case? Not often enough, by a long shot. Growth usually requires providing negative feedback and pushing people out of their comfort zones. That’s not immediately gratifying, is it? Therefore, many managers shy away from it—which I’ve written about before. But the past two years have given rise to another significant factor in feeble coaching attempts: talent fear.

Surely you’ve heard about “the great resignation.” Many think it’s made up, but I’m hearing from clients worldwide that retaining talent is becoming harder, and many are seeing higher turnover than ever before. This, coupled with the incredibly competitive market we’re in, is making more and more leaders afraid of confronting their employees.

The Imagined Worst Case

When I work with an executive and recognize this is happening, I often try the popular exercise of imagining the worst. Making them verbalize what they’re scared might happen is usually the first step in overcoming the fear. Many imagine a scenario that essentially boils down to “I’ll tell them they need to work on X, or that they’re not ready to become managers, or whatever, and instead of doing that, they’ll quit and go to a different place.”

Is it possible? Of course. I’ve seen people whose managers thought they were not ready to become managers or get a particular promotion go off to a new job that gave them what they asked for. Is that necessarily a bad thing? If you have a similar concern, I ask that you start by being honest with yourself: is the employee genuinely not a good fit currently? If you believe that, then you’re just doing your duty. If you would rather have that person leave than promote them prematurely, what is the alternative, really?

The Actual Result

However, because we’re letting our fears lead us, what ends up happening is that many managers and senior leaders start neglecting one-on-ones or turn them into work meetings or entirely social. No coaching takes place. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see a lot of success with this sort of ostrich leadership.

Running away from possible conflict or discomfort eventually results in teams that don’t grow nearly as fast as they otherwise could. You are left with a team of people who are happy to remain where they are—hardly anyone’s preferred group. Moreover, at a certain point, people are bound to come up on their own initiative and inquire about that promotion, for example. When they hear at that point that they are lacking in some aspects and therefore will need to wait out some more, many feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

All this to say that regardless of your reason, be it the discomfort of providing feedback or the fear of people leaving, there’s no real choice here. You either delay the situation you’re fearing, denying your team proper coaching in the meantime, or you can do your job. I find that aligning the coaching goals with their own personal career direction can only help get genuine buy-in.