Sep 112014

The 2×4

The 2×4

I took a Freshman Seminar in my first semester at Princeton in 1988 with a world-renowned professor of classical literature, Bob Hollander.  My good friend and next-door neighbor Peggy was in the seminar with me.  It was a small group — maybe a dozen of us — meeting for three hours each week for a roundtable with Professor Hollander, and then writing the occasional paper.  Peggy and I both thought we were pretty smart.  We had both been high school salutatorians from good private schools and had both gotten into Princeton, right?

Then the first paper came due, and we were both a bit cavalier about it.  We wrote them in full and delivered them on time, but we probably could have taken the exercise more seriously and upped our game.  This became evident when we got our grades back.  One of us got a C-, and the other got either a D or an F.  I can’t remember exactly, and I can’t remember which was which.  All I remember is that we were both stunned and furious.  So we dropped by to see Professor Hollander during his office hours, and he said the same thing to each of us:  “Matt, sometimes you need a 2×4 between the eyes.  This paper is adequate, but I can tell it’s not your best work, it’s decent for high school but not for college, and almost all the others in the class were much more thoughtful.”

Ouch.

Ever since then, Peggy and I have talked about the 2×4, and how it helped us snap out of our own reality and into a new one with a significantly higher bar for quality.  That phrase made it into Return Path‘s lexicon years ago, and it means an equivalent thing — sometimes we have to have hard conversations with employees about performance issues.  The hardest ones are with people who think they are doing really well, when in reality they’re failing or in danger of failing.  That disconnect requires a big wakeup call — the 2×4 between the eyes — before things spiral into a performance plan or a termination.

Delivering a 2×4 between the eyes to an employee can feel horrible.  But it’s the best gift you can give that employee if you want to shake them back onto a successful trajectory.