How to Effectively Address People Problems in Leadership


What problems are the most important for leaders to address? While leadership is full of challenges, people problems are the most important, as leadership is all about people. In this post, we'll look at how to spot and address people problems.


Knowing When to Say Goodbye? 

People decisions are the worst decisions a leader must make.

Leadership is fraught with challenging choices and obstacles, but the people elements of leadership are always the hardest. This is how it should be, though. Great leaders know that progress and results happen with, in, and through people. People are the point. Therefore, people’s decisions are the most complex.

I suspect this is why we’ve adopted the department title “Human Resources.” Deciding to move on from a “resource” is easier than releasing a person from the team and organization. You and I know that “Organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources” (That quote is attributed to Henry Mintzberg). It’s these difficult decisions that make leadership challenging and necessary.

When You Inherit a Team…

People decisions are challenging regardless of how you get there, but they are especially difficult when you step in as a new leader.

When I interviewed Frank Blake for my book, Big Shoes To Fill, we discussed his experience stepping in to become the CEO of The Home Depot. During our conversation, he said, “The inherited team is waiting and watching to see how you, as the new leader, will lead. Or if you will lead. Everybody else in the organization knows who doesn’t have what it takes. They are looking to you as the new leader to see if you really care or are willing to do anything about it.”

Blake’s comment created a lengthy discussion between us. I included some of this conversation in the book (see pages 125- 26).

The team around you typically knows who is pulling their weight and who’s skating by. Too many leaders spend their time at the top of the organizational chart, ignorant of the realities on the ground. But the team isn’t ignorant. They know who’s getting it done. They know who will put in the effort and time to achieve the mission. And they know who’s willing to collaborate and contribute to the culture versus sucking the life from the culture.

This is why all great leaders understand that people problems are the most complex and crucial problems to solve.

What Happens When People Problems Go Unresolved?

The answer is simple: Your best people leave.

When a leader allows mediocrity to remain, excellence walks out the door.

You’ve heard it said that “people don’t leave organizations, they leave leaders.” A massive reason people leave leaders is because of a leader’s unwillingness to recognize and rectify people issues. People issues function as a toxin in the organizational bloodstream. If left untreated, the team experiences:

  1. Poor Morale: Dissatisfaction, disengagement, and negative attitudes form when poor performers are left unchecked.
  2. Decreased Motivation: Team members may become demotivated when they see that there are no consequences for poor performance.
  3. Lowered Standards: The presence of poor performers without any corrective action can signal to the team that low standards are acceptable. This can lead to a general decline in performance across the team.
  4. Increased Workload for Others: Often, other team members have to compensate for the poor performers, leading to an increased and potentially unfair workload for them.
  5. Eroded Trust in Leadership: Team members may lose trust and respect for a leader who fails to address poor performance. This can undermine the leader’s authority and the team’s willingness to follow their direction.
  6. Impaired Team Performance: Ultimately, the presence of poor performers can lead to a decline in the overall performance and productivity of the team, affecting the organization’s ability to achieve its goals.

As you can see, people problems are the most critical problems.

If left unhindered, these unaddressed people problems get solved by the people experiencing the problem. The better performers leave, leaving you with only the problem people.

How to Solve People Problems

The solution is clear, albeit challenging.

You solve people problems by letting the problem people go.

Better yet, you don’t hire them in the first place. But if you’ve found yourself with an inherited team or someone slipped through a hiring crack, you’ve got to deal with it directly.

I firmly believe anyone working in the organization deserves a chance to grow into a successful employee. If you/we hired them, they are now our responsibility. This is true if your predecessor hired them, too. When evaluating a staff member for long-term fit, I like to assess their “contribution potential.” Through a series of one-on-one meetings, skip-level meetings, and personal meetings, I pay special attention to the following work characteristics:

1. Competence

As you listen to each person discuss their job, do you sense they like what they do and are competent in the role? Every role demands specific competencies. How does each person compare to what you’ve previously seen successful in similar positions?

2. Energy

As you meet with people, judge their energy. Are they burned out from their work? Are they carrying the load of under-performers? Or are they simply low-energy people? Do they have “batteries included,” or do they need a push to get moving?

3. Adaptability

Adaptability is a non-negotiable in today’s workplace. How has each person handled change previously? How willing are they to be a change advocate or adversary moving forward?

4. Emotional Intelligence

Does this person come across as self-aware? Do they experience and manage their emotions healthily? Do they understand how they affect others?

5. Influence

Each person brings an element of influence to their position and the team. As leadership requires influence, you should evaluate whether the people on the team have any influence on the team. Gained influence is a sign of leadership potential. A person who requires positional authority will likely make things worse over time. They may need to be removed from the team.

The Bottom Line

If you allow people problems to persist, your best people will leave, leaving you with even more problems.

Remember, leadership is about results with, in, and through people. The mission is why the work is done. People hampering the mission cannot remain on the team. As challenging as it is, that’s a leadership reality.

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