How to Avoid Paying the Price of Conversational Cowardice

August 28, 2017 | David Lee | HCI
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John (not his real name) was considered to be the most mission critical and hard to replace member of the executive team because he possessed institutional knowledge and acumen that no one else in the organization had. His employer was actively working with him to create a viable succession plan if something were to happen to him.

John worked long hours, was passionate about his work and was devoted to the organization he worked for. He would often work weekends rather than rest and recuperate.

His goal was to someday head up the organization.

Until he decided to leave.

The reason John left can be a useful teachable moment for any employer, leader, or manager who recognizes the importance of keeping A-List talent and being an employer that attracts more A-List talent.

The article Here’s Why Your Employees Are Just Not That Into You outlines seven factors that contribute to employee disengagement, despite the billions of dollars thrown at this problem. These under-recognized errors of omission and commission lead to apathy and indifference. One of the seven identified is “an unwillingness to address poor performance and bad behavior.”

Bad Behavior and Poor Performance Go Unchallenged

In John’s situation, his supervisor was unwilling to confront two of his colleagues who weren’t performing effectively or demonstrating the kind of work ethic that’s required in their positions.

Because they weren’t doing their jobs well and in some circumstances, simply not doing their jobs, it fell on John’s shoulders to take up the slack and to fix their errors. This added to John’s already crushing work load that was burning him out. It also prevented him from doing some of the more strategic, high-value projects only he could do - projects that would make significant contributions to his employer.

John would raise this issue to his own manager when he was required to fix errors that either colleague made or do a task they should do in order to meet a deadline. His manager would either dismiss John’s complaints or say, “I’m not going through hiring another executive again.” The process of finding and hiring one of the underperforming executives was arduous and time consuming. His manager, who was coasting toward retirement, didn’t want to put himself through that amount of difficulty again. His goal was to endure the least amount of stress and strain during this final chapter of his career.

“Because I’m not willing to do my job—and have the hard conversations—you have to do your job…and some of theirs.”

In essence, John’s manager was telling him, “I’m willing to subject you to unfair workloads and compromise the organization’s functioning because I’m unwilling to address the poor performance of your peers. I’m willing to do that because it’s easier for me than having to force difficult conversations with your colleagues.”

John would also try to engage his manager in a conversation about his impossibly-long To-Do list, but he was repeatedly told, “I know you can do it. You always do.”

John found this double standard infuriating. His manager gladly required him to be accountable (for his work and his peers’), but refused to hold them accountable. His manager was unwilling to face his own anxiety about dealing with confrontation—something he readily admitted. Instead, he took the path of least resistance: requiring the high-performer to pick up the slack.

“OK…if you’re not willing to do your job and have the conversation, I’m leaving.”

When John told me in our coaching session that he was leaving the organization, I was stunned.

He had expressed numerous times his desire to finish out his career with that company and to someday, become the CEO. His choice, while a surprise, was not a rash decision. He had tried numerous times to engage top management in constructive conversations about his concern and had been repeatedly brushed off.

He finally had had enough; he had reached the tipping point.

His manager was also stunned when John told him he was leaving. He had no idea his unwillingness to do his job and have the important conversations would eventually come with a very steep price tag.

Now, the organization—and John’s manager—had to deal with the very issue they had dreaded: John’s departure, along with his vast institutional knowledge and expertise.

How to Prevent This from Happening to You and Your Organization

Share this article with your management team and use it to identify where important conversations are being avoided due to fear. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What problems do we face as an organization, and for each problem, what conversations are we NOT having that are contributing to these problems?
  2. What fears do we have that keep us from engaging in these conversations? For each fear: How realistic is this and how can we mitigate the risk?
  3. What other conversations do we know we need to have, as an organization and as individuals, that could make a major difference in the results we produce?
  4. Are we willing to develop our courageous conversation skill set so we are more willing and able to have these conversations?
  5. What’s our next step?