Showing you can do the hard thing

Sometimes people don’t always act the way that’s expected of them. This might be someone in our team breaching rules of what’s acceptable, a business partner violating an agreement, or someone else.

Ideally this is resolved through constructive engagement—at the very least pointing out their behaviour and how it’s not acceptable. But there is a limit to how much we can pursue this before we have to give it up and try something else—which is to take formal action.

That formal action will vary depending on the situation (it might be legal, it might be an HR process, it might be something else). In any case it’s typically difficult, unpleasant, and costly in terms of time, money, or both.

When I speak to people who have done this, or look back at the times when I’ve had to do it, I find there are two major motivators.

One—the obvious one—is that the situation is causing problems, it should not be tolerated and it needs to be corrected. This might mean parting ways, but ideally the other party will change their behaviour.

But there’s also another reason, which is less obvious. It’s to demonstrate to others that we have certain expectations, and that we will work to ensure everyone meets them.

The vast majority of people I’ve worked with in teams get on well with each other, work hard, and treat each other with respect. Sometimes work pressures increase and we therefore need to put in a special effort to maintain productive relationships and good work, but we do it anyway because we care about our colleagues and our work. So when someone consistently fails to live up to the standards expected of everyone it hurts not just the organisation and how others see them, but also the rest of the team. “If they’re allowed to drop their standards,” the thinking goes, “why should I work so hard to maintain them?”

Therefore, addressing the problematic behaviour confirms to others that their hard work and respect for conventions, expectations and (sometimes) legal standards is recognised. It is validation that they are working with an organisation where the senior leadership is working hard to maintain standards. It is a sign they are working with an organisation that respects them and therefore, perhaps, has a better chance of success.

Addressing problematic behaviour is very difficult. But doing so has benefits beyond correcting the immediate problem.

Photo by Jay Peg