Leadership’s #1 Sin: Hanging onto the wrong person, in the wrong job, too long

By Lee Froschheiser

Good business leaders often say they’ve learned more from their failures than successes. These leaders have the confidence to know they can’t be right all the time and that mistakes come with the territory. For example, they might fail to communicate effectively or delegate properly. Perhaps they need to improve at accountability or developing their people.

But what’s the biggest sin or failure of all, which causes harm to the performance of a company, giving leadership the most grief? Believe it or not, it’s a people problem. It’s hanging onto the wrong person, in the wrong job, for too long.

Ironically, it’s often the company leader, or manager, who is the last to understand the impact of not taking action on a poor performer. It’s the employees, who work alongside the poor performer who quickly recognize the dire consequences of this situation, which breeds negative employee morale and loss of productivity. It can also erode the confidence and effectiveness of those in charge. On the flip side, when team leaders are aware that there’s a performance problem, many do nothing about it or take way too long to tackle the problem. Why?

Let’s start with loyalty. Loyalty is an important attribute — companies and managers encourage and value it. However, there are times when a manager crosses “the line” and perhaps over-identifies with a particular employee. When that happens, the manager often gets too close to that person. This makes it more challenging to deal with performance problems because the manager has valued loyalty over performance. An example of this situation occurs is when managers hire friends and/or relatives. That invisible line between the manager and the employee becomes increasingly difficult to recognize, so the manager becomes confused. Consequently, it’s then really tough to deal with the poorly performing employee in an objective, constructive manner.

Next, consider that nobody likes to be wrong. So when a manager hires someone who is a bad fit for a position, letting that person go becomes a public admission that he or she made a mistake. Unfortunately, the fear of admitting mistakes often stalls or prevents the termination process altogether. Perhaps the manager keeps hoping that this person will get better, but since hope is not a strategy for success, there’s likely never any improvement. The situation just festers, and everyone suffers.

Another reason managers often don’t do anything about ousting the poor performer is they don’t have a back-up plan. At least I have a warm body in the job, they think. With no back-up plan, they believe that any living, breathing body is better than no one at all. They accept mediocrity rather than take a risk that would enable them to create the opportunity to improve their situation. The solution would be to recruit proactively, always looking out for someone who could be a better team player.

Dealing with the poor performer also comes with the perception that it always results in conflict. Most people don’t like conflict, so they avoid situations that might lead to it. But implementing a good performance management system, one with an ongoing methodology to evaluate performance, eliminates the potential for conflict by creating an objective process for communicating to employees about their strengths and shortcomings. Many managers don’t have a good performance management system in place, so if they have to deal with the poor performer, conflict results. What’s more, without an ongoing methodology to evaluate performance and give feedback, employees are often surprised if they’re suddenly severely reprimanded or let go. That’s obviously a conflict-ridden situation, and one that can be avoided with a performance management system in place.

Most importantly, company leaders hold onto the wrong person, in the wrong position, for too long simply because they lack good performance management skills themselves. A good accountability leader is able to not only use the established performance system as a tool, but also create a culture in which open, honest conversations about performance can take place. Strong leaders are candid; they have no problem addressing poor performance, and embrace the opportunity to make such conversations productive for both the company as well as the employee. In addition, they set clear expectations for their employees, measure their progress, coach them when necessary and conduct more formal training as well. Furthermore, effective leaders sense when it’s time to draw a line. For instance, when they keep hearing a little voice inside their head saying, “I hope he or she gets better,” they take that as a cue that it’s time to ask some critical questions about that person’s performance and take immediate, appropriate action.

So when you examine all these reasons behind why leaders and managers keep the wrong person in the wrong job for too long, it’s easy to see why this is the number-one leadership sin. But the good news is leaders can easily change the potential for mistakes by addressing the problem head-on. What’s the best way to do this? Position employees for success by establishing a proven system for accountability; properly delegating job responsibilities; providing them with clearly defined goals; making sure their skills align with the job and specific duties; and implementing that crucial coaching and training.

Since the number-one sin that managers commit is to hang on to that wrong person in the wrong position too long, there’s a really good chance that you could be guilty. If that’s the case, challenge yourself to uncover the reasons why you haven’t addressed poor performers, develop a plan, follow your company’s performance management policy, and take action now.


Be an Accountability Leader

Key to positioning your employees for success is your own ability to hold them accountable. The following checklist will get you on your way to developing your own leadership skills, which relate directly to accountability.

  • Set clear goals and establish Vital Factors, the specific, key indicators of a business’ health, for each person on the team. Communicate what performance measures you’re going to use and what your expectations are in terms of performance. Be specific, and focus on results, not just activity.

  • Enlist the help of a professional accountability coach to help you understand what good accountability looks like and model accountability effectively.

  • Identify your weaknesses as an accountability leader and determine what you personally need to develop.

  • Establish a system for accountability and use your established Vital Factors, or the key measures of your company’s health, to evaluate performance and take corrective action.

  • Understand how you deal with conflict. What should you do differently to modify any resistance to conflict and improve upon your conflict style?


Read other articles and learn more about Lee Froschheiser.

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