How bad can it get? This example began with a casual statement from the director to the relatively new supervisor of an inconsequential department. “You should apply for the head of public services here,” he said. The supervisor was intensely flattered, had some doubts about readiness for such exalted work, but did apply. And, of course could not compete with outsiders with more experience and did not get the job. So she suffered the humiliation of the unsuccessful internal candidate. But, it got worse.
The organization was in the midst of a restructuring. And the director then called the supervisor and asked her to become head of circulation. (Circulation in then-class system of libraries was not highly thought of; indeed it wasn’t usually headed by a professional.) Knowing the other open positions, she said, “No, I’d rather be head of reference.” Director, however, indicates that a more experienced and highly respected colleague had asked for that position. So supervisor says, “Then I’d rather keep my current position.” Director says, “I already promised that to the (non-professional but very good) reserves supervisor.” This story ultimately has a happy ending – although it is not relevant to the purpose here.
What is illustrated here is that good and very well-meaning leaders can inadvertently injure some of their best people by making statements they cannot follow through on. When faced with a promising employee, the urge to praise and encourage is strong. But the line between acknowledging good work and implying promises is a fine one. And we have all crossed it at one point or other in our career. Catching yourself in this – especially if you have ever been on the receiving end – is a humbling experience.