Math 101

Can you add and subtract?

In the war for talent there are so many top ten lists and theories about engagement it’s hard to keep it all straight. Yet, let’s start with a simple question: can you add and subtract?

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of managers from newly-sanctioned team managers to C-suite holders running enterprise operations. These people have lots of responsibility – leadership is a tough gig. Yet one measure easily separating effective leaders from others is the ability to continually develop talent. To continually bring people along, stretch them, let them learn and develop and realize professional growth. This is the sweet spot.

But it doesn’t happen by subtractive management.



Have you ever worked with a boss who struggled to find anything complimentary to say about your performance, or, perhaps worse, was so patently inauthentic when they did so you immediately discounted their input? I have. It’s also true it’s pointless to work for a PollyAnna who never has credible input, but for now let’s work on the debit side of the ledger for if all you ever do is subtractive in nature at some point you reach zero.

Few people if any perform their work year in and year out in an entirely negative (subtractive) or positive (additive) manner. We all have moments in each camp and probably the cleanest way to think about performance is if graphed on a trend line over time, it the trend increasing or declining? Is one adding or subtracting?

It’s almost as if we start a role with a certain number of points – say 50 for the purpose of illustration – and over time our leaders keep subtracting points for missteps. Maybe 1 point for minor things, 5 for larger and so on. Its not hard to see if your manager only uses the left side of the ledger subtracting value for every perceived mistake, soon you will run out of points. Soon you will have no value.

I’m not sure what drives this behavior, this tendency to overlook strengths and contributions and focus solely on needs and shortcomings. Maybe it’s true that familiarity breeds contempt, or, maybe it’s as simple as some managers are just lazy. But if your organization is struggling not only to find and keep talent but actually develop it thus increasing the ROI of your human capital, a subtractive approach will not work.

What we need is on-going real-time conversation – perhaps in five or ten-minute bursts, which is the way we really speak with one and other – about the up and downside of our performance. Adding and subtracting in real time, or, balanced feedback.

Sometimes the longer we know someone the less we acknowledge their value and impact of their contributions. And this encourages them either to stop working so hard, or perhaps to work elsewhere. If true long-term talent development is what you seek use both positive and negative feedback.

Using subtractive management alone means at some point, well, you reach zero.



2 thoughts on “Math 101

  1. Pingback: 50 Best Blogs for HR Pros: Human Resources Trends, Tips, Insights - Wonolo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s