Let’s face it. None of us are perfect and those imperfections can make work life a bit of a challenge at times. Our imperfections and human fallibility seems to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune time possible. That one time we forgot to include that thing was on the time sensitive project that created a delay. It’s no real indication of our performance ability, but just using that snapshot moment it can appear that we’re Dufus Of The Year.

As leaders, depending on the size of our teams, we can get these snapshots on more of a regular basis than we really want. Our frustration with “dealing” with these problems gets on our nerves and the people perpetrating them lose their humanity and assume the role of “problem”. Those pesky HR people don’t let us deal with it our way (which can amount to telling them to shape up or ship out), so we have to use some stupid Performance Improvement Program. Sound like a familiar attitude? Yeah, we’ve all had it. I hate to admit it, but I’m guilty of it too.

We can use these coaching tools as punitive tools if we’re not careful. We don’t have the time, or don’t want to be bothered to make the time, to actually find out what the real problem could be so we just go through the motions of trying to help the troubled team member. The improvement plan is like 1 or 2 steps beyond reasonable, that way you can use HRs own tool to re-staff your team with someone better. Yeah…I’m preaching at you (me too!).

Employees can see through this like a cheap t-shirt. Not just the employee who is in the black hole coaching program, but all the other employees who are actually doing well. What do you think this does for their engagement levels? Beyond the impact and perception of other employees, how fair are you being to the team member being coached? Feigning a punitive action with a gawdy facade of support is just cruel.

The reality is, when we act this way we are showing how selfish we are. We’re communicating, “My desire to not be inconvenienced is infinitely more important than your personal and professional development.” Whether you truly feel that way or not, that’s the message you are screaming to that person and others. There will always be the occasional bad apple, but a healthy accountability structure will take care of that.

Here are some key steps to not be a two-faced leader:

  1. Expect mistakes – We can get so hung up on performance that we forget we’re human. Expect excellence, not perfection. When people have the freedom to fail, they have the freedom to try innovative and creative things and your team/organization will come out ahead in the long run.
  2. Maintain a genuine concern for people – You’re leading others and you should actually give a rip about them. Don’t let your career/project/task ambition ever take the place of caring for people. Maintain a painfully imperfect and human working environment that embraces excellence. It allows people to do their best because they can be themselves.
  3. Communicate – Don’t just talk about things when they go bad. Pass along info frequently and freely about what is going well and what can be improved upon. Offer support and assistance in the areas where people struggle. Chances are if team members can come to you with uncertainties, you won’t get to the improvement plan stage too often.
  4. Be a person of your word – If you want to help someone improve their performance, then let it be just that. If you are documenting poor performance because of unwillingness to adhere to the accountability structure, then say that. Don’t play silly politics with people. Being a person of your word will garner respect among those you’re leading and others in your organization.
  5. Don’t go it alone – There is nothing more tempting when you feel alone than to try to appear that you have it all together. Find a mentor, ask your leader for support…whatever it takes. You don’t have to have all the answers, just make it a point to find the answers.

Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to have a team that makes no mistakes. It means you have a team that strives for excellence. The best way you can make sure this happens is to be straight with people and remove any and all obstacles that stand in their way…even if it means it’s your own ego that’s in the way. Leadership isn’t about you anyway.

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  • Fantastic article!
    I particularly like point 5, leading a team can be lonely at times especially when things are tough. With cutbacks aplenty, Its more important than ever to have someone safe to offload and work through things with.
    And what you say about Performance improvement/coaching interventions etc is absolutely right. Team members see straight through this and I think as a manager you get so much more from people by being your best self!

  • Absolutely Amie. Being deceptive and having a less than beneficial ulterior motive is toxic to any work environment. Thanks so much for your contribution and insight!


  • Steve G

    William – Superb Post – You nailed it (again!)

    In this post, you have a great perspective of what happens and why it happens (at least for me!) Your points are right on…

    As you state:
    Our frustration with “dealing” with these problems gets on our nerves and the people perpetrating them lose their humanity and assume the role of “problem”. Those pesky HR people don’t let us deal with it our way (which can amount to telling them to shape up or ship out), so we have to use some stupid Performance Improvement Program.

    And as you point out, not only does the person that receives the PIP know what is going on, but more importantly, the rest of the team sees it as well.

    I will say that sometimes the poor attitude from the leader is due to a lack of TIME to correct/understand the problem, and develop a plan with the challenged employee that will be engaging, relevant, and provide the employee with a chance for improvement and ultimately, success! With pressure from above to “provide instant results,” you sometimes finding yourself asking the question, is it easier to work with the challenged individual or cut them loose and start over again with a new hire. (How many times have you said…”IT WILL BE DIFFERENT THIS TIME AROUND!”)

    One other point I would add inorder not to be a TWO FACED Leader. ACCOUNTABILITY. I believe a good leader is accountable not only for the success and failure of the organization, but more importantly, is accountable for the success and failure of each individual member of the team.

    This is an excellent post William – thanks for sharing your insight – dead on!


  • You’re right that time can be a challenge for many leaders. This is a reflection of a culture that can’t see beyond this month’s bottom line. The leader’s leader is putting the pressure on and that pressure is passed right down the line until it ends up with the person who can’t pass it along. They look incompetent and voila! Lead from the front!

    As always, I appreciate your insight Steve. Thanks for adding to the conversation my friend.


  • Great ideas William. I am frequently surprised how many leaders go into punitive mode instead of using difficult situations as a learning opportunity. Problems are only a disaster if a leader views them through a negative prism. I’ve found that they give an organization a chance to mobilize employees to work together to resolve the issue at hand. Employees also appreciate when we actually value their input and ideas.

  • Great point Guy. Leveraging the collective intelligence of those in the organization is a powerful and effective strategy. Thanks heaps for your contribution!