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Are you being held to ransom?

Picture of Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen

CEO, Lead Facilitator, Mediator - The Real Learning Experience

Are you being held to ransom – by your team members – in your decision making process?

Or when you are holding people accountable?

Perhaps you have held back from certain decisions because you were fearful of the reaction of the team you lead – or baulked at holding someone accountable because of the way they may respond? 

In this article, we explore some of the ways team members create a reluctance to make good but challenging calls and provide some suggestions on how to deal with them. 

We have noticed a trend emerging amongst many organisations, teams and leaders we are working with: the wrong person or people are effectively making the decisions – by exerting subtle, and sometime not so subtle pressure, on the leaders who should be making those decisions. 

When fear of the fallout means you fail to address poor behaviour or poor performance, avoid making unpopular decisions, and shy away from asking people to do reasonable things that they don’t want to do, the wrong people are determining the standards and performance in your team. We are big fans of empowering team members but when that includes coercive power to avoid expectations and accountability, your leadership is undermined.

By coercive power, we aren’t suggesting that they are blackmailing you because they know some dark secret about your past, although that could be an interesting topic for another article! Make no mistake though, they are blackmailing you with the fear of consequences.

Five ways in which employees are creating this fear 

  • If I don’t like what you tell me, I’ll go work somewhere else. I’ll quit. And good staff are hard to find. So it’s up to you, but if you push me, I might just leave
  • If I don’t like what you tell me, I’ll just go and talk to your manager. And they’ll deal with you because what you’re asking me is not fair
  • I will take sick leave or make a stress claim
  • I will be really negative and hard to manage
  • I will claim that I am being targeted or bullied
The rule of two rights

My first recommendation is that you have to do things well. If you are following good process and managing your own communication effectively, you significantly decrease these coercive powers.

The rule I always work with is: are you asking people to do the right thing and are you asking them in the right way?

If you’re adhering to those two principles, then really none of those other consequences that they hold over your head have any real weight. Of course, they’re still free to leave and frankly, that might be the best thing.

The threat of leaving

‘What if they leave if I ask them to do things that they don’t want to do? If I hold them accountable, I then have to find someone new.’

I know that it’s inconvenient to replace someone but consider the alternative: keeping someone who wants to work and behave the way they want to, not the way you need them to. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that having a body in a seat is the same as having a worthwhile team member. If the price of keeping someone is allowing them to behave or perform at a level that’s not acceptable to you, then the price is too high. It can be difficult to find staff, but it is usually much worse to keep people who are destructive or not helpful. It’s the death by a thousand cuts. Instead of just dealing with the issue, you let them undermine performance gradually every day in their actions.

The other reality is that people are often much more reluctant to leave – and have less options – than they think or claim. By respectfully explaining that you would like them to stay with the team but only if they are prepared to work with the team’s standards and values, you often disarm the threat of leaving.

Complaining to your Manager (or People & Culture)

‘I don’t like what you tell me, so I’ll go and see your manager.’ If you know you need to have a strong performance management discussion with one of your team and you know that they are likely to run to your manager and complain about it, and particularly if you’re worried that your manager may undermine you, have a discussion with your manager first. Outline the behavior or performance issue that you are concerned about, explain how that is undermining the results or the team performance, and discuss what you plan to do about it and the discussion you’re going to have. Get buy-in from your manager before you even start – and ask for a commitment that they will back you up on this. You may need to have this discussion with your direct manager, but it may also mean talking to an external department such as People & Culture.

If you can’t get a commitment to support, you may reconsider the discussion – but you could also make it clear that you can’t deliver the performance they expect from your team unless they support you in reasonable actions to deliver that performance.

Stress claims and sick leave

Could they go off on leave and claim stress? Sure they could! And you know, sometimes the system allows people to do that. However, if you’ve got a well-documented process in which you can show that you held people accountable for their performance, you asked them to do the right thing and you asked them in the right way, then there will typically be a limit on how long this can happen for. 

Workers Compensation leave is a legitimate facility for people to deal with all sorts of issues and it generally provides protection for people who have been injured or harmed at work. Is it sometimes abused by people seeking to avoid accountability? Definitely, but when you avoid issues because of this threat, the longer term damage and loss of productivity is much higher. Hard as it is, if someone takes this option, accept it as part of the process and let the experts deal with it.

If you think someone is a risk for this, outline your plan of action and discuss it with People & Culture first.

The same principles really apply to someone who goes on sick leave because they’re being asked to perform at a reasonable level. We see this all the time. Someone has a discussion with their manager, they don’t like the outcome, the next day they call in sick. Once again, it can be frustrating, but you have to ‘play the game’. It is the way people sometimes respond and the system allows them to do it. Remember, the system only gives them a certain amount of sick leave. If they find a medical professional prepared to sign off on that sick leave for a period of time, that’s just a process you need to go through. Of course, that sick leave will run out and then they’ll need to either come back to work and be accountable, take leave without pay, or go and work somewhere that their behaviour and performance are considered acceptable.

A footnote on this: I am rarely in favour of someone using annual leave entitlements for sick leave, and never when this dynamic (if you hold me accountable, I will take time off work) is in play. Annual leave is for planned blocks of time away from work, although I will always make exceptions for genuine hardship.

Bullying and harassment

This is the one that strikes terror into a lot of managers’ hearts – someone claiming that they are bullied, harassed and treated unfairly. It is easy for someone to make noise around this and be heard, but they need to be able to substantiate that claim for any real consequence to apply.

Go back to the principle we outlined earlier. Are you asking them to do something fair, something reasonable, and are you asking them in a reasonable way? If you are, you are on strong ground. It’s OK to ask people to do their job. It’s OK to give them performance-related feedback as long as it is given respectfully and appropriately. Make sure you follow a strong process, document well, and hold yourself to the highest standards if interpersonal conduct and you have the best protection available. Of course, if you work for an organisation that doesn’t support you when you hold people accountable, it may be time for you to look at alternatives.

Performance management is one of the biggest issues we see facing leaders today. When you have to hold people accountable for their performance or their behaviour, it inevitably feels more uncomfortable, it inevitably involves more conflict. But it is one of the responsibilities of a leader and as soon as you decided to accept a position in which you manage one or more other people, then you became a leader.