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.


Operate Ahead of the Power Curve

October 11, 2014

MistakeI was blessed with a wonderful mentor for most of my career. He and I got along famously, and he taught me a number of leadership skills over the years.

He was not a perfect manager himself, as he had a tendency to micromanage people. I found that out early and worked hard to over communicate with him and anticipate what he would ask so I could usually say “I already did it.”

After a while he stopped micromanaging me and left me alone to do what I thought was right.

One critical skill he taught me was what he called “operating ahead of the power curve.”

It took me a while to figure out what that meant, but I eventually got the idea, and the concept has been incredibly important to my success in life.

The idea is to charge at the work to be done very early and do not wait until just before something is due to get it done. That takes some discipline to do, but it is a wonderful way to live.

Reason: you do things in rough draft form well before they are needed and then you can relax and hone them in due time. It works well.

For example, as I am writing this blog article, it is the fourth one I have written this hour. My pattern is to put out one article each week. I have a stock of numerous articles ahead of me so I don’t have to rush them out. I can think about them.

When the inventory gets low, like today when I just exhausted my last article, I bang out 4-6 more articles to get ahead of the power curve.

My wife helps me by proofreading the text and making suggestions for improved content. Then I rewrite the article and have it “on the shelf” ready for when it is needed.

That way, I am never rushed to get an article out and I can take my time working on the content of each one.

Try the technique of working “ahead of the power curve” in your life. The process works well for school papers, for budgets, for painting the house, for any activity that you might want to procrastinate on. Just grit your teeth and do the job early.,

You will find that the quality of your finished work is much higher and you are less stressed about getting it done. That is a wonderful benefit for anyone.


Don’t be Blown Off Course

December 21, 2013

Full Moon SantaEach of us has a vision of how our day will go if things occur “as expected,” but then life happens: There is an accident, illness, phone call, weather related issue, burned food, delivery, robbery, injury, the boss walks in, and on and on.

We are forced to react to these changes and try to juggle the interruption as best we can to still try to accomplish the objectives for our day.

On most days, most professionals have this kind of planning chaos occur. We can mourn the confusion, but it is better to just realize that these interruptions or distractions are what give life its spice.

One idea is to try waking up each morning with excited anticipation. The feeling should be, “OK I have a plan and objectives for my day, yet I know there will be large and small ‘adventures’ that take me off track.

Some of these may actually be fun, but many of them will be things I would rather not do. I look forward to stepping up to the challenge of accomplishing my goals while dealing with the distractions as they come up.”

Give yourself permission to get a bit testy if the interruptions become extreme. It is OK to put barbed wire and flares around your desk when a critical task has to be completed and you cannot be disturbed.

You just need to establish a priority for each task and work your way through the interruptions until you are back on course.

One technique I find helpful is to get up earlier and earlier until I get caught up with the backlog. The hours between 1 am and 7 am are delightfully free from interruptions, so my work time is more productive. Of course, I need to go to bed earlier and earlier to get enough rest, but the habit really does help me from getting buried for long periods of time.

Of course, some people are night people and others prefer the morning.

If you are habitually overloaded such that you never really get caught up, that is a stress problem that may be impacting your health. Depending on your tolerance for work, you may need to readjust your activities to make more time and reduce the amount of activities you are trying to juggle.

Another helpful technique is to use the word “no” more often. If you refuse to be blown off course every day, then you will be able to manage the remaining activities in the time you have.

That is often easier said than done, because sometimes the interruptions cannot be denied. If your child has fallen and has a broken arm, you cannot say, “Well, sorry, I have this report that is due out by tomorrow; we will take care of your needs after I get it done.”

Another technique is to identify how much time you are actually wasting. Sure, we all need to rejuvenate, but often we get involved in some TV program or in reading a book and just spend too much time doing the things we want to do, thus leaving not enough time for the things we have to do. Each of us has to find the right balance.

Ironically there is a practice that takes time away from work that is a real trap for some people. That is the habit of complaining about not enough time to do the work we have.

I once knew a man at work who spent nearly half his time walking around the office complaining to other people how there were simply not enough hours in the day to get his work done.

That activity was not only blowing him off course, but it also tied up the person who was listening to his rant. The idea is to ask yourself seriously if you are truly applying yourself fully to the work. Sometimes you may be actually procrastinating, yet you feel overloaded.

My experience has been that when I truly apply myself, I can get more done than I would have thought possible on most days. What happens when I let the distractions lure me away from what needs to be done is that I fall short of my inherent capacity.

It’s not that I couldn’t get everything done; it’s that I didn’t get everything done. There is a huge difference between those two statements.

To be fair, we all need a down day every once in a while where we just choose to goof off. The problem is that some people tend to have a percentage of goofing off as part of each day. That means when they get blown off course, there is no reserve time to flex to the situation. That creates frustration.

If you compartmentalize your tasks and keep pursuing your original list of things to do with excellent application, you can usually survive the winds that would blow you off course for the day.