People Wasting Their Potential? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior manager and have managed people for decades. I am a student of leadership and work every day to be a better leader. Here is something I am having trouble putting into words, but I hope you have some inspiration for me.

I make a big effort to help my people develop their skills so they can achieve their career goals. I put a lot of time in, most of it listening and offering guidance. Many of my team members have gone on to great things, both in my own company and elsewhere. But just as many, if not more, have not. It is frustrating to see so much potential wasted. Everyone has their reasons for not taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them. Sometimes I know what the reasons are, sometimes I don’t.

It didn’t dawn on me until recently, as I watched a brilliant and gifted young person self-sabotage despite my best efforts, that I am tired of being disappointed. It is making me second guess the value of the investments I make in people. I wonder if I should bother.

Appreciate any thoughts you have.



Dear Disappointed,

Well, you did a good enough job of putting your thoughts into words to make my heart ache. I have heard this kind of vague sadness from others, and have felt it myself, but I think you hit the nail on the head. This is one of the reasons managing people is hard. And the more you care, the harder it is.

Disappointment literally makes our brains hurt. The research reveals that disappointment produces a significant chemical response in the brain that makes us feel terrible. The brain stops releasing dopamine and serotonin suddenly and the result feels intense. The higher the expectation—and thus the extent of the disappointment—the more dramatic the yuck. You are not imagining it.

It kind of makes you want to tell people when they first start working with you, “Look kid, I am going to give you all I’ve got, so don’t disappoint me, okay?” But you won’t. And you shouldn’t, because it wouldn’t work. Why? Because it is your own expectations that are setting you up for the letdown.

There is no blame or shame in having expectations, but if they continue to cause you so much pain, you might think about finding ways to temper them. Some ways to temper your expectations:

  • Gain clarity. Spell out for yourself what your expectations are. Perhaps have conversations with your people in which you find out what their own expectations of themselves are. There may be gaps in both your and their expectations that will help you to modify your outlook.
  • Ponder a distinction. There is a difference between having a big hopeful vision for someone else and expecting something of them. Sharing a big hopeful vision—what you see as possible for someone—can be a huge gift. It can shift how someone sees themselves in a transformational way. But it is simply a gift, given with no expectation or pressure. If someone requires pressure to achieve what is possible for them, that needs to come from within.
  • Work on your attachment. It might help you to reframe your call to go the extra mile for your people as a mitzvah. Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means “good deed” or acts of empathy and kindness. Right now it seems you are expecting something in return for your generosity—which, don’t get me wrong, is totally normal. It just isn’t making you happy. Take something Nelson Mandela said as a guide: “There is no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to others without expecting anything in return.”
  • Remember that everyone has choice. Ultimately, no matter how valuable the gift of your time and attention, every person on whom you bestow your gift is going to choose what they do with it. In the end, it is completely out of your hands and out of your control. You are letting yourself get really upset about things that are entirely uncontrollable. You, too, have a choice.

Your conundrum reminds of a wonderful poem, “On Children,” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I know you are not a parent, but many see the parallels between managing and parenting. I hope this excerpt might resonate for you:

“You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

This may provide the perspective you need to sustain your kindness. Your other option is for you to just give up and decide to not bother anymore. That would be cynical and it sounds like you are no cynic.

So take pleasure in the wins, but remember they are really other people’s wins. You may mourn the losses as well, briefly, but remember that they also belong to others.

Love, Madeleine

PS: I will take this opportunity to encourage anyone who reads this and is reminded of a manager who made a big difference in their life to reach out and say thanks. Just a brief note on LinkedIn would do the trick—or, of course, a handwritten note is always welcome if you have the address. I know—so retro.

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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