IGNORING A PROBLEM IS ENABLING THE PROBLEM

In most of my management workshops the discussion, at some point, generally comes around to one of those workplace problems that few managers wish to confront.  For example:

  • A personal hygiene issue.
  • The frequent use of inappropriate language around co-workers.
  • A suspected alcohol or drug abuse issue.
  • A suspected violation of workplace time and attendance requirements.
  • Behavior of any kind that demonstrably lies outside usual and expected organizational norms.
  • A subordinate’s anger management difficulties.
  • Excessive displays of negativity and an argumentative disposition.
  • Potential sexual harassment behavior.
  • The proselytizing of co-workers motivated by one’s political or religious beliefs.

You can add to this list if you wish but my point is this:  most of us would rather avoid confronting others regarding any of these issues if we can  The discussion concerning these issues is almost always difficult, likely to elicit emotional and defensive responses and in some instances hurt feelings and negatively effect working relationships moving forward.  Unfortunately, some managers do avoid — or skate gingerly around — confronting issues like the above to the detriment of teamwork, workplace morale and often productivity.

It is useful, therefore, for managers to step back and take a clear-eyed look at what avoidance behavior actually amounts to when one of these difficult matters arises in a workplace for which he or she is responsible.  BY IGNORING THE PROBLEM, THE MANAGER IS ENABLING, AUTHORIZING AND UNCONSCIOUSLY ENCOURAGING ITS PERPETUATION.  Why should a subordinate stop doing any of the above things if their manager isn’t prepared to confront the behavior involved?

An accessory after the fact — in criminal law — is a person who, having knowledge that a crime has been committed, aids, or attempts to aid, the criminal to escape apprehension.  These accessories are frequently prosecuted for their enabling collusion.  An accessory after the fact — in management terms — is a manager who ignores potentially damaging workplace problems,  thereby ultimately rendering themselves as responsible and accountable for the problem as is the employee themselves.

I believe there are three compelling reasons for a manager to avoid damaging enabling behavior.

First — assuming the manager is a member of a larger organizational management team — he or she is responsible to ensure that problems within their scope of responsibility are successfully resolved and not passed on to other managers or other parts of the organization.  Yes, I know this happens all the time and is characteristic of some organizational cultures.  But the practice of “passing the buck” remains an abdication of a manager’s responsibility and a detrimental part of any working culture.

Second,  ignoring a clear problem almost always has some deleterious impact on a manager’s direct working unit or team.  This is often hard to see at first if other folks are not complaining or bringing the problem to the manager’s attention.  But it is a safe bet that the negative impact is there.  Any of the above problems manifested by one individual are likely to effect teammate morale and –worst of all — overall team productivity and performance.  Moreover you can also bet that those most effected by the problem individual’s behavior will expect the manager to do something about it.  They are likely to feel angry and frustrated if their manager does not.

Third, it is simply unfair, callous and  disrespectful for a manager to passively enable a subordinate to perseverate in behavior likely to eventually result in career damage, negative personnel action, and perhaps termination of employment.  All designated authorities are expected — if at all possible — to protect individuals under their authority from harm and that includes protecting them from themselves.  While no manager can personally fix the subordinate’s problem, they certainly can humanely, objectively and forcefully make clear that the subordinate must attend to the fix themselves.

The best managers are insightfully cognizant of the damaging effect of enabling and passive collusive behavior.  Consequently, the muster the fortitude to address the difficult workplace problems whenever they must.

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