I hear a lot of stories from leaders who are struggling with challenging team members.
People problems can feel quite demoralising and it is important to keep a positive frame of mind while you’re trying to manage them.
However, some people problems come down to making a choice.
And the choice that some leaders are making is to do nothing about them.
Doing Nothing Is a Choice Like Any Other
That’s right. Taking no action is a choice too.
But none of the leaders I’m speaking to are happy with poor performance. They aren’t sitting there comfortable with what’s going on in their teams.
Nevertheless, some of them aren’t taking action to manage the people problems in their teams.
And while you might think that this is simply a passive thing to do, I’d urge you to think again.
Doing nothing about a problem is actively choosing to let the problem remain.
Sometimes this might be OK, and entirely appropriate. At other times, this can cause huge ongoing problems.
Why Are Leaders Ignoring Their People Problems?
Ignoring is probably the wrong word.
I’d say that some leaders know there is a problem, but they feel as if they are powerless to do anything about it.
Or, there are a number of leadership excuses that are used to justify the lack of action.
I’ve written previously about the useful Sphere of Control model. It is comprised of the 3 spheres:
- Sphere of Concern: Which contains things that we may be worried or thinking about, but cannot influence (such as the weather or certain company politics)
- Sphere of Influence: This contains the items that we may be able to influence, but may not be able to control them or make a decision about them directly (influencing stakeholder opinions, for example); and
- The Sphere of Control: Contains the aspects that we can directly control and make decisions about, such as our actions.
I find this a useful model for mapping out what’s troubling you. Then, the idea is to focus most of your energy on those things you can influence and control.
However, it is not a very useful tool when we convince ourselves that things are out of our control, when they really might not be.
When we believe we can’t influence or control anything, everything starts to fall into the Sphere of Concern. Once we have convinced ourselves that this is true, we excuse ourselves and no longer feel the need to take action.
After all, it’s not our fault, right?
Learn More: 6 Steps to Deal With Behaviour Issues In Your Team.
Are These Leadership Excuses Present In Your Workplace?
Sometimes we have a variety of ready-made excuses that convince us that we are helpless.
Of course, it is entirely possible that your situation is very difficult, and you can’t do much about it.
But before we just leave it at that, let’s look a little harder at some of the common leadership excuses I hear and see if we might not challenge them a little.
Leadership Excuse #1: “They’re Brilliant”
A common refrain I hear about difficult employees is that they are technically brilliant and gifted.
I once had a business owner tell me this about one of her managers who was a nightmare to deal with.
This phrase is often accompanied by a statement like “They upset people from time to time…”
That’s right, we’re letting this person off the hook because they’re technically capable.
As a result, they have free reign to run amok, causing conflict, frustration and a loss of productivity.
Leadership Excuse #2: “They Get Things Done”
This is one of my favourites, and I hear it often.
The person who steamrolls people, engages in conflict and is generally a very direct communicator.
But, leaders put up with them because “they get results”.
A manager once told me that they had a certain person who was likened to a “wrecking ball” who “we let out when we need to get something done”.
“At what cost?” is a question you might ask.
Leadership Excuse #3: “They Know Everything About…”
This is another classic excuse.
The person who knows everything about a system, process or subject to the point where they have made themselves indispensable.
They have what is known as Expert Power, which they are using to their advantage.
Let this situation go on for too long, and you might find you’re being held to ransom by your in-house expert.
Leadership Excuse #4: “They’re Lovely” or “A Great Guy or Girl”
Another common excuse I hear is more about relationships than results.
If someone is lovely and capable, we don’t have a problem.
But often you hear this said about people who aren’t quite able to perform their role effectively.
We don’t want to hurt their feelings because they’re nice, or perhaps because they’ve been employed for a long time and everyone knows them.
Unfortunately, when you hear this, it’s a low-performance environment in the making.
Leadership Excuse #5: “They Know the CEO’s Cousin”
Coming in last but certainly not least is the personal relationship example.
People are social beings, and it’s not unusual to see close relationships forming outside of the normal organisational structure.
This doesn’t need to be a problem, unless it becomes an excuse for overlooking poor behaviour or performance.
The people in this category are exercising Referent Power, which is the ability to influence people based on their relationships.
Considerations for Making a Change
If some of these excuses look familiar to you, you’re not alone, because these are common phrases I hear when I speak to various leaders and teams.
And the point of this post is not to blame you or make you feel bad. The situations illustrated by these excuses are real, and never easy to deal with.
No, the point of this post is to try to help leaders make intentional decisions about solving these people problems.
Or, to make an intentional decision not to solve them.
What Impact Are These Excuses Having?
To start, let’s consider the impact.
When we make an excuse for these situations, there are consequences, such as:
- Decreased Team Performance: Letting poor performance or behaviour flourish will impact team performance. It could be because there is greater unresolved conflict, or that team members lose motivation (or quit) when they see people getting a free ride.
- Leadership Reputation: When we let team members get away with bad behaviour (no matter the cause), we are sending a clear message. That message is I’m unable to do anything about (or don’t care about) this situation. That’s not the behaviour you want to role-model, is it? It’s hard to follow a leader when you perceive them as less-than-credible.
- Setting a Precedent: Continued poor behaviour or performance tells people that they can get away with it. Why strive to do well, when there are no consequences? Worse still is when we hold the “easy targets” (the ones that aren’t friends with the CEO, for example) accountable, instead of the real culprits.
Another consequence that we mustn’t overlook is the impact on you.
The nagging feeling that maybe you *should* be doing something about this situation.
You know it’s wrong but you’re not sure what to do, or are struggling to find the courage to do it.
Learn More: Why Leaders Must Drive Consequences in the Workplace.
So What Can You Do About It?
Each of the situations leading to these leadership excuses are different, and the solutions may vary.
Many of my previous posts capture specific advice about dealing with these challenges, so I’ll leave a list of relevant ones at the bottom of this article.👇
I think we often know what we could or should do. It’s just about motivating ourselves to do it.
Measure Both the Hard and Soft Factors
A foundational step in being able to tackle these sorts of challenges is to be able to measure performance.
You’d be surprised at the amount of team members out there who don’t have formal objectives to work towards.
Objectives give people a target to reach, which helps to hold them accountable. If they delivered five things when they were meant to do ten, that’s clear and quantifiable.
If people are instead just “doing stuff” with no clear objectives, then it’s hard to argue with them when they say they’re doing a good job.
But it’s not all about hard numbers. We also need to be able to measure against behaviour standards too. Bad behaviours should be discouraged, so you need a framework to set the tone.
A set of company or team values or behaviours is one way that we can do this. They act as a set of ground rules which we can reference if we see something we don’t like.
For example, if your company holds up “respect” as a core value, this can help you to call out disrespectful behaviour more easily.
Learn More: Setting Team Goals: Tips for Thoughtful Leaders.
Now Tackle the Mental Side
It’s not all about measuring performance though. We need to be mentally prepared to take action on these leadership excuses.
On that note, I’ll leave you with these suggestions.
1. First, start by noticing any excuses you make for poor behaviour or performance – or rather the excuses for not tackling it.
I find that raising the awareness of any excuses in your own mind will tend to heighten your discomfort with letting the problems remain. When the discomfort grows, you’ll begin to look for solutions.
2. Next, try answering the question:
“What would I do if there were no consequences?”
The answer to this question tells you what you really would like to be doing. From there, you can craft a practical approach to solve the problem.
3. Sometimes, doing nothing can be the right response depending on the situation. But if we choose that response, we need to make sure we’re being intentional about it.
So if you choose not to tackle the problem after all, say to yourself out loud:
“I’m choosing not to tackle this problem because … <reason>”.
Yep, that’s right. Say it out loud, on purpose.
You’ll feel it if you think you’re taking the easy option and cheating yourself.
Some Resources to Help You Tackle the Leadership Excuses
- Power Dynamics: Are They Impacting Your Team?
- Seeing Negative Behaviour Patterns? Here’s How to Stop Them.
- Thoughtful Leader Podcast #82: Thoughtful Leader’s 5 Cs of Performance Management.
- Got People Problems? Here Are 5 Reassuring Thoughts.
- Imperfect Principles for Having a Challenging Conversation.
- Is It Picking Your Battles or Just Avoidance?
- Thoughtful Leader Podcast #229: Is a Direct Conversation Needed? Use This Checklist.
- People Not Doing What You Want? Ask This Leadership Question.
Have you seen these leadership excuses at play in your workplace? Or have you used them yourself? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!