Posted by: David Stewart | August 28, 2010

How a bad memory can be a total lie

After over 20 years as a manager, I figure I have seen just about every situation at least once.  Occasionally I’m reminded about past management mistakes. But sometimes my memory of my past mistakes is a complete fiction.

I ran into a guy this week who worked for me over a dozen years ago and who I have not seen since then. We chatted a bit about what he was doing now and then we went on our way. But like a flood, it brought back a surge of toxic memories of our work experience.

Back in the late 90s, I was looking for a quality assurance engineer for a software project I was running. This guy I mentioned was an internal candidate, meaning he already worked for our company, and was looking for a new position. But how much can you really tell about someone from an interview?

We have a pretty strong culture of hiring from within the company. It allows the hiring manager to get someone on board who is already familiar with the company and enables the employee to work on new skills.

But when I asked him about the job he wanted to leave, he started complaining bitterly about his current manager. Said he was crazy, unreasonable, irrational. This devil manager had a horrible temper. He was desperate to get into a different job. He was sure the guy was going to fire him.

So I called the "losing" manager, and asked him about this guy. Predictably, he was very critical of him. He warned me not to trust him and not to hire him.

Now what should I do? I urgently needed an experienced QA guy right away, and this guy seemed to have all of the right experience. The interview team was agreed that we should just hire him. Should I believe him? Or his old manager?

So I hired him. And you know what? He did absolutely nothing.

  • We set goals and expectations with timelines and firm deliverables. He didn’t deliver on any of them.
  • "Have you started this work yet?" I would ask. "Nope." "Are you going to start it now?" "Yep."
  • "Why have you not started this task yet? It was supposed to be done already!"
  • "Are you clear on what needs to be done? Do you need any help defining it?" Here I was incredulous, since he was very experienced and has shown me examples of his work. "Yep, I don’t need any help."
  • "Do you need help to get started?" "Nope." Very calm, not ruffled at all.
  • I begged. I pleaded. To no avail.
  • Finally I put him on the path of "progressive discipline", clearly documenting the expectations and timelines and explaining the consequences of not delivering on them.

And just like that, he arranged a transfer to a new group and a new position.

The new manager never contacted me, never asked for my opinion. I’m sure I was probably characterized as crazy, unreasonable and irrational. I thought about contacting the new manager and warning him. I don’t remember if I did.

So there ends the lesson. That would make a fine blog post if I stopped right now.

But, it turns out, it’s just not true.

How do I know? After I wrote the above, I rooted around and found my notes on this employee. Apparently he worked for me for over a year and evidently delivered quite a few things over that time period. But I did remember correctly his failure to deliver on certain major things is true, and some of the comments from his fellow engineers was pretty bad.

So I ended up remembering the bad things and the way the situation ended and totally blocked out any of the good things.

I never thought I was someone who would hold a grudge. Figured I was pretty forgiving. Now I know it’s not true. I only remember selectively. And I’m much less smug about the lessons I supposedly learned.

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