We all know the feeling, we’re losing sleep, we’re avoiding the person at work, we’re angry, frustrated and tearing our hair out. We have an employee who is not performing, not showing up how we want them to at work or behaving in a negative way, a way that isn’t sitting right with you.
We can’t always quite put our finger on the exact issue, it’s just not quite right, but it’s wrong enough to be consuming our time and attention. Or maybe it is more obvious, but we feel like we’re going over the top if we bring it up – we don’t want them to feel like we are micromanaging them or pulling them up for something that feels petty and insignificant (yet the fact that it’s consuming our time and attention does in fact mean that at some level it is significant to us).
So, we tolerate it, whether it’s behaviour, attendance, performance or something else, we tolerate it. We think maybe it’s not that much of a big deal, or maybe it’ll be short term, or surely they will realise soon and fix it!
Here’s the thing – your employees won’t suddenly realise there is a problem when you are sitting idly by tolerating whatever is going on. Your tolerance of it in itself gives them permission to continue. It demonstrates to them that in fact what they are doing is acceptable, so why would they change? What’s in it for them not to continue?
Over time we see these boundary lines blur. Imagine a piece of paper with a circle drawn in the middle of it. The circle is the boundary. Initially the employee colours a little outside the boundary, and you tolerate it, - it’s just a single stroke. But because you tolerated that, they continue, they keep blurring the boundary until the boundary no longer appears to exist.
It’s at this point that most employers, leaders and managers snap. They finally have the conversation, and often it’s fuelled with emotion because of the pent-up frustration and disappointment that’s been building whilst they have been watching and tolerating. In fact by this time many of us forget what the original issue was, an we react to a multitude of issues that have presented as this has continued over time.
At this stage the employee is shocked – they see a total over reaction. Why? Simple – all they see is that we are reacting to the last small change that’s happened, they see us reacting to the last push of the envelope. In fact, the case is that we are reacting to the entire compound multitude of issues that has come together since we first tolerated the performance or behaviour issue. We are reacting to the sum of it all, but they don’t know that, they just see us reacting to the last tiny incremental change and perhaps naturally and reasonably think that we’re totally out of line, unreasonable and even crazy.
As leaders it’s our job to set the boundaries, and boundaries are important. But the more important part of our job is to protect the boundaries. Generally, in my experience I see leaders, owners and managers who do ok at setting the boundaries, but upholding them, protecting them – that’s where we tend to fall short.
Setting and upholding boundaries is the key to building high performing teams.
These conversations are not the easy ones to have, and they require a sense of trust, open communication and forethought, but they are some of the most important conversations you need to be having. One of the fundamental things our team wants to know from us is what we expect from them – they aren’t mind readers (despite how great that would be). So if we aren’t communicating boundaries and expectations, we are doing our team a disservice, and when we don’t uphold those boundaries we are only undermining the hard work we have done in setting them.
To that end, even though it may not be the most fun or comfortable part of the work you do with your team, I encourage you to have conversations early. Demonstrate how this impacts the broader team, and the overall operations of the organisation, and like always seek to understand – when we get curious and understand our people and their perspectives, we build a trusting team and that makes upholding these boundaries an easier job.
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