Wisdom//

Maybe Our “People Problems” Aren’t a Problem With People After All

As a manager, is your performance pain immediately attributed to a person or a group of people?

jaminwell/ Getty Images
jaminwell/ Getty Images

A few months into my role as an executive VP, I had finally hired the perfect administrative assistant. Sarah was professional, mature and had an impressive work history. I was sure she would help me organize my work, make my life easier and provide a stable hub for my younger team. Things were going to be great! They were… until they weren’t.

It wasn’t long before I found myself complaining of my new assistant’s lack of anticipation, her inability to get me what I needed and how much time she was wasting. I began to only interact with her when I absolutely had to and I found myself not bothering to assign her work (and simply did it myself or reassigned it).

Glowing with excitement, Sarah would come to me with ideas or plans, and I would toss them to the side of my desk. I “knew” they wouldn’t be helpful. I answered her emails with the bare minimum and was in a continual state of disappointment and frustration with her. I felt I deserved better and was far too busy to babysit a professional.

Then one day, I committed one of my worst leadership sins (as a pastor, I feel it fitting to use the word “sin”). I complained to a manager who reported to me about my incompetent assistant.

At some point during me listing off all my “problems,” this manager stopped me and asked, “Have you ever clearly laid out your expectations for her and the results you want?” She went on to share that my assistant often spoke of me with great respect, though felt like she was failing and had no idea why.

For months, Sarah had worked into evenings to try and improve processes and manage my constant flight/meeting changes. She feared for her job. My stomach turned as I realized the hard truth that she wasn’t the problem at all. I was.

I had failed to see how my lack of management and care for her was not only making her work difficult, but also deeply affecting her sense of well-being and contribution. There were expectations I had never communicated, targeted results that I didn’t keep her abreast of… and I thought she would solve all my organizing challenges when I wasn’t even making it possible for her to do so.

The real problem was my perspective. I had been seeing Sarah unfairly and had remained unwavering in the belief that my opinion of her was right. How wrong I was.

Most often within organizations, the importance of people and purpose come into focus only once productivity and profit are in good standing… and when there is pressure, the people focus falls to the wayside.

When a business is stressed, we predominantly look at people as a set of problems and fail to recognize how our people perspective is undermining the very performance results we say we want. We are looking at our performance problems all wrong.

The source of performance pain is not our people… it’s our perspective.

Human dynamics and interpersonal relationships are frequently uncomfortable, yet we find ourselves managing people — not because we have excelled at harnessing the best in human potential, but because we were good at our job and got promoted into management.

By default, we view our “people problems” in terms of how they:

1. Impact us

2. Impact the bottom line

Industry is filled with examples of organizations sacrificing people and their culture as they try to survive their markets and increase productivity and profitability. The challenge with this stems from an entrenched assumption that the people side of our business is somehow separate from the operational side. In fact, to even call them sides sets up an either-or mentality.

This way of thinking leads us to believe that, 1) Operations are more important, and 2) Investment at whatever level in the people or service side of our business is discretionary and does not really contribute to the bottom line or organizational success.

Then add on the fact that we often go a step further and blame our people for the challenges we have in profitability, thereby reinforcing deeper the belief that our people are our problem.

There exists an interdependence between people and profit that has gone far too unnoticed within the modern-day organization. While we play lip service to people being the backbone of our business or our greatest asset, the true test is how we integrate them in times of pressure and what decisions we make. For instance, while I was scrambling to assemble presentations and coordinate my team, I could have reached out to Sarah to help and be involved instead of sidelining her.

We “chunk up” our business into departments, hard and soft, services versus operations, which leads to a mindset of dissection — when what we really need to prosper as organizations and leaders is a mindset of integration.

All too often, when “people problems” arise we address them with policy, politics and performance management. We try to dissect the problems. We chalk them up to personality differences, office politics or even the generation they were born into. And when it comes to resolution, competence is our go-to place, because that’s where we’re most comfortable — so much so that we’re going there to solve human issues. We are trying to solve human dynamics with business mechanics.

When we address human issues only through skill acquisition or tools, it doesn’t work. As human beings, we know and feel when we are being addressed with care and compassion. We know whether or not we are being spoken to because someone genuinely cares about our success, or whether they just see us as a problem that needs to be fixed. We need to remember that our colleagues and assistants are those people.

The skills we have are only effective in relation to the amount of care we have for those with whom we work, so we must begin with care and an awareness of how we are really seeing the person in front of us.

Have you ever had someone treat you as a problem? Most of us resist that person and close off to what they may be saying even if it is true. Now flip your perspective: Have you ever been the one to see another person as a problem?

Developing a mindset of care and intersection begins with honest self-examination of how we impact others, rather than how they are impacting us or the organization’s bottom line. The fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves as managers are:

  • What is it like to work with me or to be my colleague? (Especially when I am under pressure!) “What’s it been like for them having to work with me these last days, weeks or months?”

In addition to …

  • Does my management style and presence invite others to show up to work and offer their best, or do they do the bare minimum or avoid working with me unless absolutely necessary?

  • Do I genuinely care about those I work with and manage, or are they simply people doing jobs?

Honestly reflect on who others have become for you. Are they simply a problem, a nuisance and challenge? If your answers are telling you that it’s time to shift your perspective, here are the steps:

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I know about the work and current challenges my people are facing? Have I made things worse for them?”

  2. Identify one to three things you need to do to bridge the gap. Do you need to apologize? Is there information you can share that you may even have been withholding? What can you do to help THEM achieve success?

  3. Begin to care about them. As a person (a human being that like you!), the people in your care have jobs to do that are often fraught with challenges and they too want success. They need to be appreciated and, chances are, they most likely wanted a prosperity-oriented relationship with you as well!

You get to decide how you will shift your perspective toward those in your care. Because remember, those who are cared for will care about the organization’s success (including customers and deliverables). They will care about the organization’s prosperity and financial health, alongside a culture of great care and capacity that is built to support thriving, happy, engaged people.

Bringing our humanity to work is the only way we will propel organizational prosperity and find the prosperous balance between care and capacity.

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