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.


Do Leaders Motivate or Demotivate?

December 28, 2013

Business problemsI have written about the connection between leadership and motivation in the past, but I have not coupled that with the connection between leadership and demotivation.

By the way, just because my spell checker keeps underlining the word “demotivate” does not mean it’s an illegal word. It is not in many dictionaries, like Websters, but it does exist in some of them, like The Cambridge Dictionary.

There is even an organization ( Despair Inc. ) that sells demotivating posters and other strange products. I love their motto, “Motivational products don’t work, but our demotivational products don’t work even better.”

There is also a fun website completely devoted to demotivation.

In this article, I reveal some truths and myths about how leaders motivate and demotivate.

My thesis on motivation is that leaders really cannot motivate individuals. When leaders use the word “motivate” as a verb, as in “We need to motivate the team,” it is incorrect usage.

What leaders do is create the culture in which people react with high motivation. A prime example is when leaders create an inspiring vision, shared values, and an environment of high trust, where people feel valued.

Motivation comes from within an individual, and a person working in a culture of trust is more likely to feel motivated.

Once motivation is generated within someone, that person owns it. The sad truth is that the precious commodity can be snatched away from that individual as quickly as a seagull can snatch a discarded scrap of bread at a beach picnic.

I believe that leaders can easily eliminate the motivation within a person. Many leaders are masters at it, demonstrating their skill numerous times a day.

Taking away the motivation of an individual is easier than doing the Chicken Dance.

Here is my top 10 list of things that leaders do to demotivate people at work. See if you agree, and let me know if you have pet peeves of your own to add to the list.

1. Trivialize what an individual is doing or make fun of the employee

2. Claim credit for the good work of an employee

3. Give an assignment, then micromanage the employee

4. Ignore the employee when he or she does some spectacular work

5. Punish the employee who brings up a concern

6. Play favorites or appoint a relative to a position of power over others

7. Insult the employee by drawing attention to what he or she cannot do

8. Engage in sexual or other forms of harassment with the employee

9. Set impossible goals and berate the employees for missing them

10. Demand honesty from the employees but demonstrate low integrity him or herself

In reality, there are thousands of ways a leader or manager can demotivate an individual who has already been inspired to become motivated.

Elite leaders realize that the way to encourage top performance is to set up conditions such that individuals motivate themselves, and then stand out of the way and let them turn the motivation into positive action for the organization.

My advice for leaders is to create enduring trust, which is the environment for high motivation, and then when motivation occurs, don’t kill it.