Many people contact me asking what leadership actions they should take to fix their workplace problems. Of course, every workplace is complex, with a unique mix of relationships, leadership styles and personalities.
Unfortunately, there is never a silver bullet solution to any of these problems. The answer often requires time, persistence, some trial and error, and taking some powerful leadership actions.
Executing these leadership actions takes courage and commitment, and may be quite uncomfortable. There is no escaping this aspect of leadership.
Why Leaders Don’t Take Powerful Leadership Actions
First, let’s start with some of the reasons why leaders don’t take action. Here are a few common reasons that I have encountered:
- Conflict avoidance: Leaders like to lead happy and harmonious teams, and many people don’t like to rock the boat, even if it’s necessary.
- Risk of losing their job: Many leaders come to depend on their high salary or the prestige their role brings. They don’t want to risk losing it and needing to find something else.
- Political factors: Office politics can make a leader’s job hard. After all, it can be difficult to make change when your underperforming team member is your boss’s son.
- Being kind: People-focused leaders like to give their people the benefit of the doubt and help them improve. While I believe this is usually a good default approach, there comes a time when enough is enough.
- Helplessness: Many leaders in complex work environments feel like they can’t control what happens around them. But every change happens with at least a small first step.
When leaders fail to take powerful leadership actions to solve workplace problems, a toxic culture can form which is hard to dismantle.
Over time, continued inaction will see toxic and dysfunctional behaviours become part of the normal way of operating.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode 48: The Perils of Passive Leadership.
Before You Take Any Powerful Leadership Actions … How Much Does It Really Matter to You?
Before starting to take any powerful leadership actions, it’s worth asking the question:
“How much does this really matter to you?”
The reason this is an important question is because the leadership actions that are likely to make a seismic shift in team culture require commitment, discomfort and a little risk.
Are you comfortable with the current situation? Or is it bad enough for you to stand up and do something? Does it keep you awake at night?
Many leaders fail to act because it’s easier to do nothing. Sometimes, we hope that something will change by itself, but it almost never does. If a positive change does occur without action, it’s usually because we got lucky.
Learn More: 6 Steps to Deal With Behaviour Issues In Your Team.
Leadership Action #1: Have a Direct Conversation
One of the simplest ways to tackle a tricky issue is to actually have a direct conversation about it. This sounds obvious, but often leaders will skirt around the issue, making hints or expressing frustration without tackling the conversation head-on.
Engaging in a direct conversation about an issue sends some important signals:
- It shows that you’re serious about fixing the problem; and
- It shows that the current situation is not acceptable and cannot continue.
When engaging in a direct conversation, try not to skirt around the issue. Let the person know why you’re having the conversation, and what you have observed which has led you to tackle the problem.
Then listen. You might hear some things that you weren’t expecting. Try to keep an open mind and hear the other point of view.
It’s always a good idea to have some action steps after a direct conversation. This might mean you will follow up again in a few days, or that somebody is going to do something differently to address the situation. Action steps will allow you to hold people accountable to help fix the problem.
Choose the Right Target
If you have a team member who is performing or behaving poorly, you’d probably think that they are the right person to have a direct conversation with. In most cases, I would say that you’re right.
But what if, for example, they have a strong relationship with a senior manager in the organisation which is preventing you from managing their performance effectively?
I have observed this situation many times, both myself and in conversations with my coaching clients.
In this example, the target of your direct conversation in the first instance is probably the senior manager who is making it difficult to manage performance, instead of the team member.
Sometimes, you need to influence the right people before you’ll be able to make meaningful change.
Learn More: Avoiding a Difficult Conversation? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions.
#2. Call Out Bad Behaviour
Another of the powerful leadership actions we can take is to call out bad behaviour when we see it. Once again, this takes courage, because it can feel confrontational.
Many work environments are polite and “nice”. This makes confronting a bad behaviour even more difficult. It is also made harder if the bad behaviour is entrenched in the culture of the organisation.
However, if leaders don’t take steps to address poor behaviour, there is no hope for change. Bad behaviour worthy of attention might be engaging in gossip, bullying or disrespecting others. Or really, any behaviour that doesn’t reinforce the values you want for your team or organisation.
Referencing company values as a way of calling out bad behaviour is one good way to start. For example, your organisational values might include “Being Inclusive”. If you find a team member excluding someone in some way, you could reference the values to help you tackle it.
It can be tricky to see bad behaviour, because people often act differently around “the boss”. Keep your eyes and ears open and look out for anything amiss.
Leadership Action #3. Make a Significant Change
Sometimes when things aren’t working the way you’d like, you need to shake things up. This might mean introducing a new process, changing the team structure or creating some new team metrics or targets.
There are many options, and introducing a team change can be a helpful “circuit breaker” to stop entrenched behaviours or dysfunctional ways of working.
If your change forces people to work differently or build new relationships, this can act as a point for you to “reset” your team. A significant change can allow you to say:
“We used to work like this, but from now on, we’re doing it a new way”.
This can be more effective than incremental change, because it is noticeably different. Incremental change is good too, but you may find people slipping back into old ways of working if they aren’t forced to significantly change their approach.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #69: Leading Change In Your Team.
4. Reinforce and Role Model
When you’re trying to address a team problem, sometimes the solution seems obvious. It’s making it stick that is often the challenge.
Making a change stick comes from consistent reinforcement and role modelling of the desired behaviours, processes or anything else you want people to adopt.
You might not feel like it, but you are a role model for the people around you.
If you let bad behaviour slide or fail to apply consequences for poor performance, people will see that it’s OK to do the same.
Reinforcement is not all bad, either. Recognising people for good work or behaviour is another powerful means of helping your message stick.
Basically, you want to train the people around you so they understand what you want.
Over time, it will hopefully become second nature. Without consistent reinforcement, the seed of doubt is planted in people’s minds about how they should behave or perform.
Learn More: Need to improve performance? Try the Team Accountability Builder Online Course.
These leadership actions are deceptively simple, but they aren’t easy. They require courage and commitment to implement and reinforce.
If you feel like it’s not worth the trouble in your workplace, then you’ll struggle to make the desired outcomes stick. However, if your willingness to make change is greater than your desire to stay the same, then you’re in a great position to take action.
Hi Ben everything you send an email with an article it always appears at the right time! Thankyou for this week’s newsletter as it was really relevant to current issues
Good to hear Jo – hope you manage to make progress on your issues.