An inevitable stalemate. Bad staff, or bad leader ?

Mark Cutting Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Training 1 Comment

If your career has taken you into management or leadership, by now, you should realise how important it is to place value on your staff. After all, a leader is only as good as the people he or she has working for them. A classic example of this could be a restaurant – if the service being offered by the waiting staff is below an acceptable standard, but the leader promotes an image of exceptional service, then there is clearly a disconnect. So who is at fault here ?

Bad staff or bad leadership ?

Let’s be brutally honest, shall we ? It’s not the staff. It’s the leader. Yes, your team need to be driven, motivated, and actually want to work for you in the first place, but it is the responsibility of any leader to ensure that the well oiled machine they promote in reality actually runs like one. I’ve worked for various management structures over the years, and have to admit that with the exception of my current role, they have all lacked what I consider to be key strengths. Over my career, I’ve seen some exceptionally gifted colleagues completely lose faith, and resign in favour of employment elsewhere. To make matters worse, these so called leaders did not make any effort to retain that employee – nor did they see this situation simmering on the horizon despite it being blatantly obvious to everyone else. It’s an unfortunately well documented fact that bad leadership is the primary driver for a good employee to look elsewhere.

If you surveyed 100 employees of various industry sectors and asked them if they were satisfied with the leadership style and policy at their workplace, you may be surprised by the results. Staff often have a very low opinion of leaders for a variety of reasons. I’m by no means a human resources expert, but the writing is usually always on the wall for all to see concerning the risk of losing a key staff member. However, either that writing is in a different language, or it is being simply ignored.

Staff have a tendency to confide in each other, and in general, most complaints around leadership often pass by without the attention they deserve. The policy shouldn’t be to simply sweep problems under the carpet, or ignore grievances hoping that they will lose momentum and eventually fade into oblivion – issues raised should be addressed in a timely fashion. I’ll be the first to point out that the human resources department in my current employment is second to none, and by far the most proactive and responsive team I’ve ever come across. However, human resources can’t possibly see every situation unfolding with employees, and often only become involved when that member of staff is at the end of their rope, and has already made their decision to leave. In all honesty, I’d be mortified if I was informed by senior management that a member of my team chose to part ways because of either my approach or shortfall as leader.

I assumed control of my department early in 2016, but immediately faced what at the time seemed like an insurmountable tsunami of grievances and staffing issues from team members.

Admittedly, the outgoing “leadership” at the time was unfortunately dismissive of issues raised, had no real value on staff and their capabilities, and even once told a team member that they were “overpaid” –  in front of the remainder of the team. This should serve as an immediate red flag. Here be dragons, and a leader should never make a statement like that regardless of it being their opinion or not – especially not in front of other team members.

Stoic leadership style

Stop and think for a moment. What kind of image and confidence level in a team member does that portray ? Not only is it extremely degrading, unnecessary, and unprofessional, it also destroys morale and self-worth. Statements like these also have a ripple effect on other team members particularly if the impacted colleague is held in high regard by peers, respected for their skills and views, and perceived as a major component within the department. The outgoing leader within my team had a very low opinion of the staff under their control, and took the disturbingly jaded view that people were not an asset, but in fact an interchangeable commodity that could be replaced without notice or consideration of impact to the remaining team or current workload. An interesting observation from my standpoint is that so called leaders of this type rarely have any appreciation for service longevity, dedication, or any apparent appetite for keeping staff who may be tempted to flee the nest. To make matters worse, they have absolutely no inclination of an employee’s needs in order to fulfil their role, and either lack the fundamental knowledge or experience it takes to identify a potential deficit and address it, or simply do not care.

As a result, team members are expected to adopt the fundamental basis of stoicism…..

On the other side of the coin, staff should not abuse the confidence level afforded to them, and consider themselves irreplaceable as such an attitude in fact has the opposite effect with me personally. I really do not appreciate “god complexes” – nobody is beyond perfection – nor do they know everything. On a similar note, leaders often inherit staff who they feel are not the best individual for that function. However, if that individual is under performing, or not best suited to the function they are assigned, who is really at fault ? Blaming the employee really isn’t the right direction to take in cases such as this – you need to take a step back and look at how that function and associated employee were being managed previously. Also, you’d need to be mindful of the fact that it’s more difficult to take something away from someone rather than not give it to them at all in the first place. New leadership does present the opportunity to make organisational changes were necessary, and I certainly have leveraged this benefit a few times myself – it also provides a means of removing silos and creating opportunities for others in the team to develop their skills further.

What should a leader do to improve things ?

I have personally taken an adaptive approach to making structural changes within my team to ensure I get the best out of each team member. Whilst they all have their “quirks”, they also all have something unique in terms of skills and personality that they bring to the table. Despite already being a senior member of the team, I really wanted to gain an insight into other’s thoughts and concerns, and so, I met with each one to get their perspective on their current role, how they perform it, and asked them for suggestions around improvements to existing processes and functions. At the same time, I asked each team member for their opinion of the department as a whole, and what they expected from the new structure going forward. The responses surprised me. Not only did I find that team members felt their skill sets were not being used to the full extent, but they felt they had been sidelined into lesser tasks because they weren’t “trusted enough” to carry out that type of function. That mindset needed to change – now.

Not only did I need to make structural changes, but I also needed to ensure that each member felt that they were actually a part of that team. For some members, this took a great deal of convincing in order to bring them back on side. For those affected, the damage was significant, and a level of trust needed to be established before they would be willing to commit. Seeing that the situation was not beyond repair, I worked relentlessly in an effort to rectify the situation – admittedly, we came close a few times to parting company, but we are now in a much better place having all endured the same bumpy road during the transition.

My conclusion is that no team is ever going to be perfect, and I don’t want it to be if I’m honest. I like the fact that differing personalities usually means a different way of doing things, and provided you as a manager are willing to listen, you’ll often find that ideas from the team are much better than yours on your own.

About the Author
Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting

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Mark Cutting is the founder of Phenomlab.com and Inocul8r.net. He is a network, security and infrastructure expert with more than 27 years service in the Information Technology sector. Mark has a significant eye for detail, coupled with an extensive skill set. Having worked in numerous industries including trading, finance, hedge funds, marketing, manufacturing and distribution, he has been exposed to a wide variety of environments and technologies alike.

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Tassos Arampatzis
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It is the head of the fish that smells, we say in Greece. It is the leader that leads by example. A leader must have a clear and concise vision to communicate to the staff so as to give them the reason to become productive and effective. Great post Mark and I fully agree with your conclusion.