Change Cadence

One of the things that “come with the job” for me is that many people approach me out of the blue and tell me what issues they’re currently struggling with. Some of those then get in touch again a few months later. Unfortunately, most report the same issues still being worked on with little to no progress. That’s because we’ve lost the ability to push forward soft-skill tasks. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be the case.

The Binary Mode

A few days ago, I was talking to another executive lamenting a typical situation. There are (senior) people in the organization that are low-performing and that should up their game. They’ve been told explicitly. However, months pass, and what progress is made is so minute it’s like watching paint dry.

I find it astonishing that high efficacy leaders that would never tolerate such waffling when it comes to projects allow this. It seems as if many of us have a misconception that there are only two ways of handling personal issues. One, like in the case above, the person gets “told,” and then we wait and wait. What for? Well, unless the person magically propels themselves forward and grows, what usually ends up happening is that we wait for the last straw.

At that point, things move from waiting to a drastic measure like putting the employee on a PIP. This is often the first time the matter receives real treatment and starts being managed. Unfortunately, this is also too late. Most PIPs are a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this manner, we treat personal and interpersonal issues as binary: we either wait indefinitely, or we flip a switch and start a process that is likely to end suboptimally.

Stop the Waiting Game

The problem with all the waiting is it abrades your company’s culture and performance. Every week that passes by makes things worse and ingrains poor standards.

When you linger, everyone suffers. All affected feel a burden but cannot do anything about it. They have to live with it for a prolonged period. Then, they all get used to bad things. We learn that changes are slow. We become accustomed to low performance and poor standards.

Eventually, everyone’s expectations are lowered. Raising the bar again is going to be much harder. That’s why larger companies frequently struggle with engagement and quality. This compounds and can result in missed market opportunities and a lack of momentum. After stretching this like a piece of gum, you’re likely to part ways with the problematic players and others in the team who have grown frustrated. Isn’t it better to address it earlier?

The Middle

What is essential is that we grasp there are more than merely two options. There’s a whole spectrum between them. If gentle coaching doesn’t work when it comes to solving the problem, you can act before letting everyone’s attention run out.

Leaders have the responsibility to manage these problems. Treat these like other work issues. For example, set clear goals and milestones. Have expected deadlines for clear improvements or resolutions of conflicts. It might seem unnatural initially, but the truth is some urgency can go a long way in spurring growth.

For example, if someone is on the fence because they’re uncertain about their responsibilities or roles in a growing company, you should take the lead and help them out. Create a safe environment to experiment and set agreed-upon time frames for such a test. Sometimes, people need to know it’s alright to try something and see if it’s a good fit—even senior people.

Managing soft-skill problems can be more challenging than keeping track of another project, but it’s immensely more valuable and impactful. In growing organizations, it should easily make up a third of your workload as an executive. That’s fine; everyone needs help growing. Be the leader the organization needs, and stop being overly “nice” till it’s too late. Sure would be nice if, by the second time you reach out to me, we would discuss how you’re going to leap forward instead of rehashing the same old problems.