It’s 9 AM and I’m grabbing coffee at my favorite hotspot in NWA – it’s called Onyx Coffee and I’m obnoxiously addicted to it (and anything else NWA-related). The barista slides my drink across the counter and I eagerly take a warm sip as I find my way to the table.

My friend John is already waiting for me. He’s at the small bistro table, coffee in hand, and despite us only having been there a few minutes, he’s already gulped down half his cup.
We make small-talk – our wives, the outdoors, family, how much we hate the Golden State Warriors – you know, usual stuff. It feels like we’ve only been talking a few minutes before he eagerly transitions the conversation into what he *really* wants to talk about.
“So I have this employee?” He starts.
I know this line. It’s the start of a conversation I’ve had a thousand times over with a multitude of business owners.
And it’s always delivered the same way. There’s always that same look of anxiousness, that heaviness of, “What do I do now?”
You probably know the look. You’ve probably made it yourself at some point. I know I have. I’ve had the employees who I felt like I have tried literally everything short of giving them the keys to the business, and somehow they still cannot get better.
I’ve had employees that it just felt like everything clicked, and others where I had to look in the mirror and wonder if I was ever going to be cut out for leadership.
I’m blessed to have worked with some really incredible people and their businesses – and it’s usually owners who are well-meaning when they ask about their employees.
These individuals are great leaders: they really want to see their employees succeed, and they usually have a management style that combines emotional intelligence, patience, and empathy.
But there’s a common flaw I see in many leaders that actually works against even the greatest of qualities – it’s a flaw that prevents companies from really growing at their potential with a team of employees who are operating at a high level.
It’s Hope.
Hope is counter-productive to your business. In fact, it’s downright insidious in its ability to paralyze your growth. It’s an incredibly well-meaning trait, but that’s about as much confidence I’ll give it.
Too many business owners simply hope their employees will get better.
Is it because people choose to fire too slowly? That’s part of it.
But this article would be far too pessimistic if that was the brunt of my advice.
Here’s what I’m getting at.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me what I thought of “annual reviews”. So I told her what I thought.
“I think they’re a huge waste of time.”
Really? Really. What I know to be true at scale is that most owners do them because they know they’re supposed to.
But why are annual reviews so meaningless for a company and its employees?
Because they’re too slow – if I have a struggling employee, and they already had their annual review the month before, am I really going to wait 11 months to bring something up to them?
Besides, the data tells us that in many cases they can even be counter-cultural for your business.
So if annual reviews were to be gone tomorrow, what would we replace them with?
Well, let’s go back to my friend who’s struggling with his employee?
He starts with, “I have this employee?” and what follows is the list of grievances. All are understandable, and I can see why my friend is frustrated. Almost with thrown up hands, he sinks back into his chair and ends with, “What should I do?”
There’s only one question I ask John. “Did you tell the employee?’
“Tell them what?” He asks.
“Everything you just told me.”
“You mean you want me to tell my employees how they suck?”
Here’s what’s incredible. Business owners, managers, leaders – whatever your title – many of us all struggle with the same thing. It’s that we’ll tell everyone about “that one employee” but we’ll never tell the employee themselves.
We’ll tell our spouse over dinner. We’ll commiserate with a co-worker. But actually having a direct conversation with someone where you explain how they’re missing the mark? No way – you’re nuts!
But here’s the thing. I’ve found that speed in business is so crucial for growth. Being able to pivot quickly, make strategic decisions, operate with information that’s developing as you’re using it? All of this requires the best businesses to be fast.
I remember a story of an employee who was constantly late to work. Finally, the boss pulled him aside and asked, “Everything okay at home?” Confused, the employee assured the boss that things were fine. A few more prodding questions came, all with similar answers, until finally the boss got to the point.
“Well, I’ve just noticed you coming in late, and I was worried things weren’t going so well.”
What an incredibly empathetic and patient response. The boss probably scored major trust points with the employee.
But did the employee stop coming in late? No! In fact, the employee didn’t even realize there was a problem.
While the boss is wasting time thinking of 12 different ways to subtly bring up the point of correction, the employee isn’t performing at his highest level because he’s coming in late every day.
It’s incredibly slow. There’s that word again: slow. If you want to be successful, you can’t be slow, especially in todays game that’s seeing the market evolve at a faster pace than ever.
So, how do you help someone on your team who isn’t performing as they should, while also staying agile? Here’s the magic answer: tell them. That’s it. It’s really that simple.
You can even bypass the “compliment sandwich.” Take one minute, look them in the eyes, and tell them exactly what isn’t working, and what you need them to change. Give them the critical feedback they need in order to improve.
It’s going to be awkward. It’s going to feel bad. But if you’ve hired great employees (who else would you hire anyway?), they aren’t going to hold it against you. Instead, they’re going to respect you for bringing it to their attention, and they’re going to genuinely try to get better.
Maybe you’re thinking you aren’t good at these kinds of conversations. I get it, but it’s just like going to the gym. Just like any muscle you’ve rarely used, the more you learn to be candid, the better you’re going to get at it, and the faster your company is going to be able to iterate and improve.
Now you may be thinking – wait, we’ve all had that boss who was brutally honest with correction, and no one liked working for them. Maybe it even felt like working for a dictator or a tyrant.
And that’s the caveat of all this: it’s all contingent on the high trust culture that you’ve built.
The value of the relationships I’ve built with people who work with me has been the direct indicator of how they respond to my feedback.
I’ve given honest feedback only for it blow up in my face. I’ve also given the most crushing of perspective, and then been amazed at the humility of the recipient who graciously accepts it and hangs on every word. But it’s more than just hiring high-quality people who are teachable and humble.
They trust me. They know I have their best intentions in mind.
When you think about your people, do you have their best intentions in mind? Prove it by caring about their outcomes. Prove it by caring about their professional journey.
I’ve always loved the perspective of a former Fortune CEO who explained:
“How do people get so far in their career with flaws that cripple them? There’s only one answer: it was a manager who chose their own comfort over caring for their employee. Whenever you’re amazed at the drawbacks of an employee, recognize that at some point there was a manager who could have said something, but didn’t.”
Here’s the beauty of all this. When you legitimately build a culture with a foundation of trust that leads to honest, authentic, candid conversations, it’s not just your employees who will get better. We aren’t talking about a one-way street here.
You’ll get better too. As you provide criticism and feedback, they’ll provide the same to you.
For any ego-driven CEO, this is a nightmare. It’s a “that’s a No Thanks for me.” And that’s fine – plenty of insecure bosses find their meaning and status in what they’ve built rather than how they’ve grown.
But to build something truly meaningful, to really elevate your impact on a greater level, you need a team that operates at the highest capacity. That means candidness. That means having hard conversations. That means opening the door for them to tell you when you’ve missed the mark.
Leadership has never been about a title, and it certainly has never been about being comfortable.
It’s always been about leading people towards real results. Real impact.
There’s a cost to leadership. Not everyone will pay it, but the best companies will.
Stop hoping your employees get better. Make them better so you can take your company where it needs to go.