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4 Reasons Leaders Invest Too Much Time in the Wrong People

Is that employee not right or not ready?

One of the recurring warnings in my writing for leaders is the very sobering encouragement to beware spending too much time with the wrong people. While the notion of giving up on someone sounds very unleader-like, this trap is one that I see well-intended professionals, from CEOs to front-line supervisors fall victim to with alarming regularity. The performance and environmental costs from this mistake are high to their teams and firms, and this message bears repeating.

We all know that getting the right people in the right seats is a prerequisite for success. The challenge comes when we find ourselves dealing with someone who isn’t quite right or isn’t quite ready and they’re occupying a critical seat.

Good leaders will do the right thing with those who aren’t quite ready. A combination of training, coaching and developmental assignments laced with ample feedback is often the right recipe to help someone gain experience and context for a bigger role. And when it works, it feels great for all parties involved.

The problem comes in assessing whether the individual is not ready or not right for the role. This happens frequently when a leader inherits a new team and lacks context to effectively assess each individual. Lacking specific evidence to support the “not right” conclusion, the leader opts for the same “not ready” treatment described above. It’s only after the passage of time and ample opportunity to observe that the dilemma becomes visible. This is where the trap opens wide and swallows the time, energy and treasure of too many otherwise well-intended leaders.

At least four reasons why we don’t recognize the ‘not right’ employees:

1. We’re invested with time and treasure. We’ve given our time, treasure and trust, and it is easier to keep investing than it is to cut our losses. This is the classic sunk-cost problem of decision-making, where we fail to realize that prior investments are sunk—they’re gone—and that they should have no bearing on our decision to invest moving forward. Instead, we engage in our own game of “with a bit more time and money . . .”

2. We don’t love to admit mistakes. Giving up on someone is an admission that we were wrong. This fear of admitting a mistake feeds the sunk-cost effect described above and is a reason why so many leaders just keep going with individuals who are less than ideal for the role. It’s easier to keep up the facade of progress than it is to admit to the boss that we screwed up and this person we’ve advocated for isn’t right for this role.

3. We like the person, we’re emotionally invested. Unless the individual has any particularly odious characteristics, we tend to like those we work around and those we invest in, and once you cross the chasm to viewing these people as friends, a decision to quit investing becomes significantly more difficult.

4. We misapply the “develop others” mantra in our values. It’s actually quite common for me to see someone in a leadership role perceiving that their job in support of their firm’s values is to not give up. Ever. This misinterpretation of an otherwise fine value tends to perpetuate situations where the leaders go so far beyond the call of reasonable that they become part of the problem.

Five suggestions to help with the “not ready” or “not right” dilemma:

I’m an unabashed fan of erring on the side of the individual, particularly, if we perceive they have the basic character and intellect to be productive members of our team. However, the biggest mistakes of my career have been my own misapplication of this noble thinking by spending too much time with people who in the end were never going to be right for the role.

1. Move quickly to support development. If you’ve inherited a new team and find yourself facing a “not ready” dilemma, opt in favor of the individual and offer developmental support early. From skills (training) to behaviors (coaching), your assessment and your quick support are essential to resolving this dilemma.

2. Truly pay attention to performance. Too many leaders assume the training or coaching has taken care of the developmental issues and they fail to pay attention to the individual’s performance and behaviors in the workplace. You must look for evidence of development and you must offer feedback if you are or are not seeing it in the individual’s daily efforts.

3. Talk often and mostly ask questions. Questions are among the leader’s most powerful teaching tools, and the right questions will allow you to gauge an individual’s developmental progress. Are they thinking through problems and solutions holistically? Are they framing decisions with multiple views? Are they applying critical thinking to the challenges they encounter on a daily basis? Your active questioning (and listening) promotes learning and helps you assess an individual’s readiness for the role.

4. Observe how others engage with this individual. While a 360-degree assessment can be a powerful tool, the ad hoc approach is to observe this individual in many circumstances and watch how people react to and engage with him/her. The body language and behaviors of others around and toward the individual speak volumes.

5. Set your own deadline, study and then trust your gut. You’re in the leadership role because others trust your ability to make effective, timely decisions that help support goal achievement. The decisions you make about people are truly mission critical, and the longer you go without the right people in the right roles, the more you jeopardize your team’s and your organization’s success. Set a reasonable deadline for a decision and stick to it. If after a fair evaluation conducted by observing and engaging with the individual, you still have doubts about the individual’s ability to operate at the current or a higher level, trust your gut and make a change. You’ve done your part.

Fresh off my rereading (and teaching) of the outstanding book, Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic (applicable to leaders and managers in all industries), the authors offered two pertinent reminders on the people factor in this institution’s 100-plus year run of excellence: The people remain the conclusive explanatory variable, and attracting great people is the first rule of execution. They’re right. In all cases. If you fight this formula, you’ll be hurting yourself, your team and your organization. Don’t confuse “not right” with “not ready.”

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Management Excellence blog.

(Image via alphaspirit/