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By Josh Hayman, associate, Legitimate Leadership.

In a previous newsletter I wrote about how “passing the intent test” is an everyday opportunity. We often find ourselves in conversations with clients around this issue – in particular when discussing the very difficult question of continually trying to balance care and accountability. Managers often see this balance as something that cannot be sustained – either the manager displays care, or the manager gives accountability, and that these two acts are at opposite ends of a spectrum. When our need to “care” about our people becomes an excuse to expect less than the best from them, we run the risk of tolerating, or even encouraging, employee mediocrity.

To enable excellence in people, Care and Accountability are two complimentary ideas that must be held in the hand simultaneously, and it is precisely because we care that we give appropriate accountability.

Over the past few months I have had several managers put variations of the same problem on the table for discussion during our coaching reviews that illustrate this point.

The problem goes something like this: “I have a problem: one of my people has been with us for a while. He has generally been a good employee and a valuable contributor over several years. Lately, I’ve noticed that both his motivation at work has begun to erode, and his performance is just not what it was. It is ok, but not great. The bigger problem however is that I think he has reached his potential in the current job, and there isn’t any room for him to grow further, though he would like to. I want to help him, but am just not sure what to do.”

What the manager is grappling with is this: she does care about the person, but perhaps also believes that the situation the employee finds himself in is not of his making, and that he is also therefore not accountable for himself. She therefore concludes that the right thing to do therefore, is to be understanding.

Our aim, however, is an excellence person, and an excellence person is one who has the capacity to make his contribution the priority, regardless of the situation he finds himself in. Understanding or sympathy may be appropriate, but not at the expense of cultivating accountability. The Legitimate Leadership view is that the kind of help the person really needs is to be confronted with the situation in which he finds himself, so that he is enabled to make a decision about what to do about it.

The barrier to doing this most often lies with the manager, and her reasons for not doing so usually fall into one of three categories:

  • I’m afraid our relationship won’t survive the conversation,
  • I’m afraid I will de-motivate him even further and his performance will get even worse.
  • I’m afraid he will leave.

All of these issues are about the manager’s intent, and not only do they have little to do with the employee, they are also not helpful to the employee.

In acting (or in this case, not acting) on the basis of these three reasons, we fail the intent test. This failure is evidenced later on, when performance or motivation is so poor the manager has no choice but to discipline the person, or when the lack of career growth options force a conversation about redundancy. The employee then often asks: “How long has this been an issue? Why haven’t you said anything before?” The employee is really asking: “Why didn’t you do the right thing, and just tell me?”

When we confront people in situations like those described here, we do so to help them face the situation they are in, and in doing so empower them to make a choice to do something about it. This is done precisely because we care. This act empowers employees to be their best. The opposite allows and tolerates mediocrity.

This is benevolence in the heart, but steel in the hand.