I was heading north on I-95 recently, going about 75 miles per hour, when a small, sporty car zipped by me going way too fast.
It passed me in a flash, weaving and dodging between the other cars on the highway. I thought, “That’s an accident waiting to happen,” and said a quick prayer for everyone’s safety.
Rounding a curve several miles up, I felt relief and, to be honest, the guilty pleasure of retribution when I saw that a state trooper had pulled over the too-speedy driver. Who knows, maybe this intervention made the difference between the driver getting to where he was going and him never making it at all—possibly taking others out with him. I was confident that the driver paid a penalty in lost time, the cost of higher auto insurance and a moving violation fine. I could only hope there was a lesson learned and that the risky behavior would not be repeated.
We’ve all experienced the feeling that a situation was about to go bad, that we were observing a train wreck in the making. On the job, these wrecks involve an employee or a group of employees. As managers and leaders, what is our role in these situations? Do we sit by and wait for the crash, or do we intervene to change the course of events?
Proactive managers choose the latter, avoiding the accident about to happen and ensuring that precious resources are used to move the firm forward instead of cleaning up after the fact. Take a look at the following scenarios and consider what your role is when you see things heading down the wrong path.
Good Employees Going Bad
You know the drill. A solid corporate citizen, previously productive, punctual and professional, suddenly slacks off, starts coming in late and generally isn’t operating at the level that meets expectations. If we’re honest, there is typically nothing sudden about it. Unless there is a pivotal, traumatic event, usually this situation is long in coming, but the symptoms are either ignored or the manager assumes that the employee will spontaneously snap out of it.
Some ill-advised managers even pick up the slack for the employee during a downturn. Take a lesson from the highway patrol and don’t ignore or encourage risky conduct. Pull the employee over, sit down with him or her and find out what’s happening. Offer guidance and support. Don’t wait until the bad behavior becomes the new normal or you’re completely fed up. Intervene early on, give a warning rather than the boot, and nine times out of 10 you can turn things around.
Groups Turning Into Gangs
We encourage self-directed teams and groups, including project teams, management teams and executive teams. Getting people in a room together most times yields positive and powerful results, but sometimes an energetic and aggressive group can move from collaborative thinking into a gang or mob mentality. What separates a group from a gang? Typically it’s the methods and directions taken by the group. Groups that develop an us-versus-them credo or whose bond is strengthened by fear, intimidation or individual gain, do less good for an organization than initially envisioned. A team that can’t brainstorm without judging or demeaning those with different ideas will eventually seal itself off and exclude others who might be able to help the team achieve its objectives. If the team seems to have an exaggerated view of its own power, you might want to step up and make sure that this wolf pack in the making isn’t about to do some long-term damage. As an example in our industry, misguided young producers sometimes demand special treatment and expect to be catered to by others. They expect such entitlement for themselves, and they expect it for all members of their producer-pack. This conduct doesn’t happen overnight, but many firms turn a blind eye to this behavior as it develops and then pay the price for their tolerance. Smart firms mentor young staff on effective interpersonal skills—how to work well with others, really—to nip these issues in the bud.
Managers and leaders are a busy, multitasking and priority-balancing group. They are fighting fires on all fronts and at the same time devising plans to ensure the firm’s survival. It’s a lot to ask that they also be on the lookout for accidents waiting to happen. Help them understand that the choice is theirs. They can pull that speeding car over now and prevent a crash, or they can deal with the twisted metal after the fact. Given the choice, most managers would rather intervene early on rather than wait and have to clean up a much bigger mess down the road.