Sometimes it’s quicker taking the easy way out. To jump to the closest rationalisation that you can to explain something bad that happened.
People do this because it shields their self-esteem from harm, and we know that leaders with low self-esteem are rarely the best. It’s hard to critique yourself when something goes wrong – it’s much more preferable to find another cause.
When leaders start taking the easy way out
When leaders start taking the easy way out to explain their issues, improvement goes out the window. Instead of looking deeper for the root causes of issues and how they might be addressed in future, leaders start to take shortcuts.
Let’s look at an example.
One company took over a smaller organisation in another region. Instead of spending significant time and resources to ensure that the smaller organisation was correctly incorporated into the parent, the smaller organisation was left to its own devices.
For a period of around six to eight months, there was no General Manager appointed for the smaller organisation. In fact, there was no official leadership structure at all in the smaller company. There used to be, but these people were stripped of their responsibility by the parent company when they took over.
What was left was an organisation with a culture and processes that were half-way between that of the new parent organisation and the old operation. This was a recipe for mediocrity.
The smaller organisation already had its issues. It was struggling financially due to some problematic projects that had caused large budget blowouts.
Fast forward one year from the acquisition. The smaller organisation has failed and the majority of its staff have been let go by the parent company.
Taking the easy way out or looking deeper?
There are two ways that the leadership of the parent organisation could proceed from here. They could analyse what went wrong and pinpoint some of the crucial decisions (or inaction) that happened to end up in this situation. Or, they could take the easy way out.
In this case, this is what taking the easy way out looks like:
- The culture of the smaller organisation was toxic, so there was no way this would ever have worked
- The people in the smaller organisation were not very good, so it was bound to fail
- The economic conditions and market surrounding the region with the smaller office was too difficult to crack, so it was never going to work
- Projects were mismanaged before we got here, causing them to fail.
If the leadership of the larger organisation were to look deeper, I think this is what they’d find:
- The smaller organisation should never have been left without a clear leadership structure for so long
- Marketing and business development should have been prioritised to cope with the tough market conditions
- Dedicated resources should have been allocated to ensure that the processes and culture of the larger organisation were adopted or tailored for the smaller company to operate effectively
- The larger organisation should have done a thorough analysis of the currently running projects, to see if they could help reduce the damage.
You shouldn’t dwell on the past, but you should focus on it to extract the lessons
Sometimes people are hesitant to look back at past events. There is so much happening right now, next week and next month that our focus is often to only look forward. Who has time to review what went wrong? Not me, I’ve got an important workshop next week that I’ve got the prepare for!
In truly epic failures, sometimes it is hard to look back and see what went wrong because there is blame implicitly associated with the events.
Failing to do so lets leaders off the hook and the same mistakes will be made again.
Prevent yourself from taking the easy way out. Scrutinise your decisions and behaviour. Hard.
I believe that leaders should be held accountable for failure and not be given the opportunity to take the easy way out. However, this is often difficult to enforce.
As a leader, I’d encourage you to scrutinise your past performance and decisions. Hard. What went wrong? What would you do better next time? Did you feel your behaviour could have been better?
There is not a single role that I’ve performed where I haven’t felt that I could have been better in some way. I could have handled situations better, treated people differently, followed process more rigorously and made different decisions for better outcomes.
Even if nobody else is involved in retrospectively looking at past events, you should do it for yourself. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what other people think because they aren’t going to fix your problems – only you can adjust your approach for next time.
Of course, this isn’t an excuse to beat yourself up. You’re only human. You do have to move forward, but there is nothing wrong with briefly slapping yourself in the face because of something you know you should have done better. The sting of that slap will help you remember next time.
Problems occur when leadership never take that introspective look at what they could have done better. Don’t let yourself start taking the easy way out.
The only way that workplaces will get better if leadership improves. Admitting you stuffed up is not a sign of weakness. Weakness is failing to acknowledge your shortcomings.
You can’t change past events, but the teams you lead in the future will appreciate the better version of yourself – even if they don’t know it.