For years in our consulting we have encountered situations where organizational leaders believed they had significant people issues. The natural assumption from management seemed to be that most problems of performance, conflict, or morale were the result of their personnel.
Invariably, however, comprehensive reviews indicated that the real issue was that those people were hampered by unproductive processes, structural inadequacies, or the lack of clear and effective policies, guidelines, and procedures. We have conducted such reviews in corporations, small entrepreneurial ventures, educational institutions, municipalities, and even service organizations and have witnessed the same thing in all these different environments. Because of this, we were among those calling for increased focus on processes and policies when dealing with managerial challenges. Regrettably, we now fear that the pendulum may have swung too far.
The truth is, sometimes the issue is a person. A person who must be effectively dealt with if the organization is to thrive. To avoid calling out specific companies, we'll focus on the environment where we spend the bulk of our time—higher education. In recent years, numerous universities have moved a considerable amount of their course offerings online. To be sure, this makes strategic sense for many schools, and scores of students find the format highly desirable.
Of course, just as some students perform better in face-to-face settings and struggle online, so do some professors. So consider the fictional department where 40 professors do a great job of online instruction and one does not. Does the leader counsel this employee about the quality of his or her work? Do management personnel at various levels make available additional resources for development? Are effectual coaching and mentoring provided? Are appropriate incentives offered to encourage desired goal-directed behavior? Is coercive power applied if more positive avenues are exhausted? In our experience, the answers are frequently no.
Substituting Policy for the Personal
Instead, everyone opts for the coward's way out by focusing on policy and procedure. If the problematic instructor produces a weak syllabus, a policy is created of having a standard template all professors must follow. If this offending member fails to reply to student correspondence in a timely manner, a policy of 24-hour faculty response is mandated. This person doesn't provide quality and timely feedback, so a common rubric is created, and its use by all is commanded.
Now please don't misunderstand. All these policies could be potentially useful, and it is important to establish suitable organizational guidelines for effectiveness and efficiency. When the same problems repeat themselves or best practices haven't been implemented, people shouldn't be continually trying to reinvent the wheel.
But too often, leaders use the development and implementation of policy as a substitute for dealing with personnel issues. Why? It's simply easier. We don't have to endure the dreaded confrontation with the problem employee. We don't have to risk offending our colleague. We don't have to worry about him or her suing us for having the gall to suggest the colleague's performance is substandard—a consequence of the litigious society in which we operate.
But why are we so willing to put at risk our relationship with the majority of employees/colleagues who are performing at high levels? The productive employees understand why these policies have come about and even for whom they were expressly designed. Don't we realize that the imposition of such policies for such an inappropriate reason will create dissension and hurt morale among true achievers, potentially leading to turnover? Don't we grasp that by attempting to use policy to deal with a problem employee, our best people lose faith, respect, and trust for us as leaders? Such behavior is a violation of our fiduciary responsibilities. And it's unfair.
Conformity That Undermines Excellence
We realize many of you would be happy if you only had one problem employee, as in our example. But bear in mind that even one poorly performing employee can hurt the entire team. And we're sure some of you are saying, "Not in our industry." "Not in our company." Think again. It's happening in your world, too.
We recently had an organizational leader tell us that all issues with problem employees could be solved with enough policies. We think that's nonsense. We might be swayed if the goal were conformity. But does such conformity really deliver excellence? Or does conformity primarily serve to quash excellence by hindering creativity?
We see mounting evidence that policy is serving as a proxy for effective leadership in many quarters. We've even had so-called leaders admit to hiding behind the creation of procedures.
Senior leaders, it's time to address such managerial cowardice. Review your operations and by all means formulate and implement important policies where needed. But let's also realize that even the best guidelines are not a substitute for intervention. And avoiding the intervention because it's uncomfortable is inexcusable.
Ask yourself and your people, do the new policies assist the firm in delivering greater quality? Or are you simply trying to solve a singular issue without actually confronting it? Make sure it's the former. When it comes to leadership, cowards need not apply.