By Jon Patton – Dec 13, 2018
I’d like to share a story about lessons in leadership. It was Friday evening, Sandy pondered the prospect of another failure.
One of her high-potential employees, Bridgette, emerged as a driven, results-oriented individual. However, she started to leave a trail of collateral damage in her wake.
Bridgette was young in her career. She was a smart, subject-matter expert who could be relied upon to deliver, no matter how challenging the situation. She was tough and set high standards for herself and others.
The problem was that she was entirely task focused and gave the niceties of people and relationships very little attention.
She could be abrupt, demanding, and pushed her ideas without taking the time to listen to others. She did not see the value in relationship building, especially with anyone who was at her level or below. What counted was if she delivered for her boss – which she consistently did.
Sandy had seen this movie before, and it didn’t play out well.
Several years ago, there was a leader on Sandy’s team at a prior company who delivered on a similar plan. She led through fear, intimidation. She also tended to be patronizing and sarcastic and combust in anger. Sandy noticed the behavior but told herself that she couldn’t afford to lose this person from the organization.
As a result, she chose to turn a blind eye.
What ensued was every leader’s nightmare.
A formal complaint was submitted to HR, which led to an investigation that uncovered numerous incidents of bad behavior and their subsequent downstream impacts. Sandy’s leadership was also at stake, and she was forced to terminate the employee.
Now, with Bridgett, Sandy reflected on the lessons she learned, and how she needed to address the situation:
- There is no “either/or” or “false choice” of results versus behavior. Sandy was amazed at the impact the previous employee’s departure made on the organization. In the absence of her behaviors, other team members stepped up in ways they had not before. They volunteered, and there was a distinct feeling that one person’s departure empowered people.
- Inaction has consequences. Sandy implicitly condoned the employee’s behavior, which sent a clear message to people that the company was not serious about its values.
- Your leadership integrity is at stake, not just the employee’s. People rightly blamed Sandy and considered her hypocritical for espousing the values of the company, while ignoring contrary behavior.
- The damage is often broad, deep and personal. Sandy was also heartbroken to hear about the impact of this behavior on individuals. People experienced undue stress that impacted their personal lives. Good people left the company.
- You are doing the problem employee a disservice, too. Without clear expectations or accountability, Sandy’s inaction enabled the behavior and allowed things to escalate to the point of no return. The employee never received an early correctional message and was unable to change her behavior.
With these lessons refreshed, Sandy decided to take immediate action with Bridgett.
First, Sandy commenced a series of regular and direct conversations with Bridgette.
She shared with her the specific observations and examples that illustrated Bridgette’s interpersonal dynamics that were holding her back. At the same time, Sandy set clear expectations that being intelligent and results-orientated was important. But, she also said that the “how” was just as important as the “what.” Bridgette’s “how” was deficient and threatened her ability to succeed.
Bridgette didn’t receive the feedback well: she was initially quite defensive and wanted to argue or justify her behavior. She pointed to the fact that she was able to push things through when others couldn’t.
Sandy then knew that verbal conversations weren’t going to correct the behavior.
So, as a second step, she put her expectations in writing for the performance discussions. Next, Sandy encouraged Bridgett to check in with peers and others within the organization to get their feedback. Sandy coached her on ways to listen effectively, which had not been a strong suit.
Sandy’s determination to help Bridgette required consistency and focus. She held regular meetings, reinforced progress and confronted backsliding. Their discussions focused on accountability on the behavior side of performance, as well as the results.
With this type of coaching from Sandy, Bridgette was able to begin to seek and receive more honest feedback and understand the impact she left.
A year later, Sandy felt pride as she watched Bridgette present an initiative to senior leaders. It was a one that required teamwork not only within her group, but across several functional areas. Now, Bridgette gave the teams accolades that she previously reserved for herself. The team was obviously engaged and proud of the way they worked together under Bridgette’s leadership
Bridgette also shared her appreciation for the role Sandy had played. She said that without Sandy’s intervention, she would’ve been unable to lead such an important area and empower her people effectively.
Sandy now tells her story of accountability – the initial failure, lessons learned, and leadership growth – to leaders within and outside the organization. Her goal is to help others avoid learning the hard way, before it is too late.
Five steps to accountability – for behavior and results:
- Recognize that as a leader, your actions set organizational norms and ultimately define the culture of the organization. All leaders have personal responsibility to promote the values of the company and to model behavior for others.
- Create clear expectations. Then, use those expectations to show people what positive behaviors look like. Be descriptive and give examples where appropriate.
- Take immediate action – don’t wait for a crisis to address the issue. When you see people acting in ways contrary to expectations, this is a moment of truth. Leaders live in a fish bowl and are being observed, so your action will have tangible impact.
- What you recognize gets reinforced. Make sure you are reinforcing people for their all-around performance, results and leadership. The sorts of people who get promotions, important assignments and opportunities send important messages about company values.
- Avoid taking the path of least resistance. Often times popularity is forsaken in place of respect, trust and integrity. People know you can be relied on to consistently do the right thing no matter the level of discomfort or difficulty.