Leadership Barometer 39 Stop Enabling Problem Employees

February 23, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.

When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.

It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.

Surfing the Chaos

March 1, 2014

Surfer On Blue Ocean WaveIn any organization there is going to be a certain amount of chaos. It is an unpredictable world, and the global pressures have made mere survival a constant struggle.

One can pine for the good old days when we could go to work at 8 am and check out at 5 pm, but those days are gone forever.

We can wish that people would always do right, or customers never get angry, or the weather habitually cooperate, but none of those desires is realistic.

To keep from going insane or just withdrawing, we need to invent new defenses from the reality of our time.

Chaos is going to happen.

You are going to have at least three crises in the next six months and so am I. The good news here is that with practice and cunning, we can learn to ride the waves of chaos like a surfer does the ocean waves.

Rather than fight back against the incredible power of the sea, the surfer uses the momentum to climb up and make a game of it. That is what we need to learn how to do in business.

Success belongs to those who can practice some simple precepts.

1. Train Well – An unskilled surfer is a danger to himself as well as others. You need the proper gear and you need to know how and when to use it to be successful. Trying to navigate a complex outsourcing decision without solid international experience is as ridiculous as going out to surf using snow skis.

2. Be nimble – Have the systems set up so that you can move with the vicissitudes of the current conditions. Anticipate as best you can what may happen, but be ready to veer off path at a moment’s notice. Consider it a core competence to not be thrown off the surf board, rather cut and weave with the wave not only to survive the pounding surf but actually enjoy the ride.

3. Be flexible – See your own paradigms and be willing to modify them or even let go completely to catch the next wave. The fluidity of changing conditions can be like a choppy sea that you are forced to fight against, or you can begin to recognize there are patterns and start paddling long before the wave is breaking upon you. Have bright creative people on the team who know how to keep from being submerged and actually “shoot the curl” or “hang 10.” Having these wonderful people is not enough; you must be prepared to listen to them and support their ideas.

4. Be undaunted – Unexpected things are going to surface like jellyfish in the water. You need to take all possible precautions and be vigilant, but there is a time to be courageous and strong as well. When you fall, and you will many times, learn from any mistakes you made, but by all means get back out there for another try. If you give up because of a specific failure, your muscles will stiffen and you will become calcified by the fear.

5. Be Alert – know the danger signals well and watch for them like you would a shark in the water. Courage is one thing, but being foolhardy with too much risk is likely to lose you a leg or more.

6. Be Smart – Great surfers know that each wave is different. They have the innate ability to know which wave to catch and which one to let pass. In business, you need to make decisions on engagement every day. Knowing which opportunities not to pursue is as important as knowing which ones to chase. To do well in this dimension, you need to have a great strategic plan. The strategy tells you both what to do and what not to do.

7. Be adaptable – every surfer knows there are new techniques being invented every day that can change the whole game for everyone. When there is the opportunity to learn a completely different way to do the job, dive in with full energy to learn it.

If you can practice these seven skills, then the waves of chaos and change will be stimulating aids to your success rather than the source of burnout or failure.