Leadership Barometer 56 Don’t Enable Problem Employees

June 27, 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, 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 away from work 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.

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 employee had an excellent grasp of the technology used in the process, so the supervisor did not want to lose the person.

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 other people are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my example, “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.

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, 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.

I advocate asking a lot of questions rather than just demanding everyone follow the rule. Here are some questions that can get a discussion going (note I will use the issue of break time here as an example):

• Do you understand the need for some limitations for the length of breaks?
• Do you think we are better off if we apply the rules the same way for everyone?
• Is it possible for the crew to enforce the rules without the need for a supervisor?
• Do we intend to follow the rules?
• What should happen to someone who does not follow the rules?

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.


Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


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.


Leadership Barometer 10 Lead by Example

August 19, 2019

There are lots of ways you can assess the caliber of a leader quickly. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Leads by Example

Leading by example sounds like a simple concept, yet many leaders struggle to do it in day to day operations. Reason: it is easy to fall into a trap of “do as I say, not as I do.” Of course, this is a deadly sin for any leader.

Most leaders would deny having a problem in this area, yet many of them really do not see how they often compromise their position. Here are three extreme examples by the same leader to illustrate my point.

Just a quick shortcut

I once knew a plant manager who was world class at this. He would rant and rave about following the “do not walk inside the barrier” signs when construction was happening in the plant. He wanted managers to consider firing any employee caught crossing a barrier.

Yet, I saw him coming to work early one morning and park in his special spot next to the building. He then stepped over a safety cone and chain to get to the main door rather than walk around to a side door.

He was aware of the fact that no work was going on at the time and was in a rush, but he was unaware that anybody saw his transgression. In other words, he thought he had gotten away with it, but he was wrong.

Wear your protective gear

This same manager insisted in having a shutdown and review any time there was a safety incident within the plant. That was laudable. During one such inspection following a safety incident, he was standing in the production area twirling the safety glasses we had given him around next to his face.

I politely told him to please put on his safety glasses. He did so but let me know by his body language that I had embarrassed him. My reaction? “Too bad!”

Show you really do care

A third incident with this leader that really fried my bacon was when we had a rather serious incident that could have caused a fatality. I ordered the operation shut down for a full investigation.

This was a large conveyor system for heavy materials that needed to be operated in complete darkness because the product being moved was photographic movie film. One of the interlocks to keep product separated had failed and an operator went in to clear a jam. He successfully cleared the jam but nearly got crushed by the incoming product afterward.

They reviewed the accident report with me and indicated they were ready to start up again. I asked how they could guarantee the same problem would not happen again in the future. Not receiving a suitable answer, I ordered a complete stand down of the operation and further fail safe measures. This was not popular with the employees who figured they could just be more careful.

After wrestling with the issues for a full day, the operations and maintenance personnel came up with a solution that really would guarantee the problem never happened again.

I called a special meeting with the production people and the Plant Manager to go over the problem and the resolution. We had the meeting, but the Plant Manager never showed up, even though his administration person said he was available at that time. What an awful signal to send the troops. Apparently he had something better to do.

After I wrote a blistering e-mail, I was on his “blackball list” until he was fired by upper management for insubordination and lying.

People notice

The point of these examples is that people really do notice what leaders do. When they say one thing and then do something more expedient, there is no way to command respect. It should be grounds for termination of any manager.

But lowly employees do not have the power to actually fire their leader, so they just do it mentally and write him off as a lost cause. There is no trust for the manager.

By the way, if you asked this Plant Manager if he had ever sent mixed signals on safety, he would totally and vehemently deny it. He was honestly unaware of his stupid actions, as is the case with most managers who are duplicitous.

Positive side

Beyond these obvious atrocities, there are positive things leaders can do. When you go out of your own comfort zone to do something positive, people notice that as well. If a leader cuts her vacation short by 2 days in order to support an important plant tour with a new customer, that really registers with people.

If a manager goes out and buys a gift certificate with his own money to thank an employee who went way beyond the expected performance, word of it gets around. When a manager helps clean up a conference room after a long meeting, it sends a signal.

These ideas are not rocket science, yet many managers fail at this basic stuff. You need to seek out ways to go above and beyond what people expect of you and never, ever violate a rule you expect others to follow.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.


Joe Paterno’s Trip to Egypt

November 13, 2011

The remarkable sequence of events in the second week of November 2011 will undoubtedly be a preface to a long string of litigation and embarrassment for the Penn State community. In particular, the actions of Joe Paterno leading up to his being dismissed Wednesday by the Board of Trustees made it evident that he had just returned from Egypt where he spent a lot of time in “de-Nile.”

This article may sound like kicking a man when he is down. I have no anger toward the man, and from a legal perspective, have no comment on whether he is guilty of any crime. At this point people should presume he is innocent, although his ouster from the Penn State Athletic Program was made unavoidable by his words and actions.

Personally, I feel sorry for Joe and especially for his family. Here is a man who has given so much to so many for so long that we ought to be willing to cut him some slack. Unfortunately, at this time, I believe the damage he did by his own words this week, regardless of his legal status, is far more deep and lasting than meets the eye. I believe Joe is only starting to recognize the consequences of his statements.

Two statements made by Joe were particularly troubling, in my opinion.

1. Joe said, “If this is true, I am shocked,” but he already knew it was true because he had notified his superiors back in 2002. That is an indisputable fact. I think the shock Joe was referring to was that the whole thing was being made public, not that an assistant was alleged to have acted inappropriately with defenseless children.

2. When he said, on Tuesday, “The Board of Trustees should not waste one minute of time discussing what should happen to me, they have much more important things to discuss,” he revealed a personal denial or lack of appreciation for his own accountability in the matter. He wanted the Board to look elsewhere to find the people responsible. Even when it was revealed he did not follow up on the matter beyond notifying his boss, he did not seem to realize what his part in the scandal cost his own legacy and that of Penn State. His statement, “I wish I had done more,” was the admission of at least some culpability, but then he went on preparing for the Nebraska Game indicating he would retire at the end of this season, as if the whole issue could be compartmentalized like the stain on Monica Lewinski’s blue dress. Utterly amazing.

His unwillingness to accept personal accountability showed a poor example, not only for current athletes, but for the legion of people who have worshiped him over many decades. Each one of those people have to go back and sort out the life lessons they learned from Joe and his philosophy in a very different light now. This will take decades to sort out, and Joe himself will be long gone. The damage done to those he touched is incalculable, but not quite as bad as the damage allegedly done by his assistant to defenseless little boys. Unfortunately, that will be Joe’s true legacy. Yes, I do pity the man and his family.

There are few role models for trust and honor as recognizable as Joe Paterno. This fiasco underscores that the truth ultimately surfaces and that the need for trust and integrity in relationships is vital. We who are witnessing this tragedy need to deepen our resolve that trust is still the objective, even if a major proponent of it has fallen on his own sword.

I am not attempting to put Joe on trial in the media here. I believe the civil and legal cases will stretch on for many years, most likely past Joe’s death. Culpability for actions will be determined over time, and at great expense, by the legal system, not me. I am simply reflecting on two statements he made this past week that reveal an inconsistency between his words and reality that have left me saddened and astonished.