When Someone Drops the Ball

 What should you do when someone you lead drops the ball?

Nothing.

While many leaders may get upset, inwardly or outwardly, I ascribe to a different philosophy. Let me share with you what I think we should as leaders when people let us down.

Surfer rides hollow blue ocean wave  tube ride , closeup water photo

If you are in leadership, you are bound to encounter this issue with people. Moreover, if you lead a growing organization, or one that is going through change, this will happen often.

You think you know a person well; you know that they can do a good job. So you give them a key project. But they drop the ball. They let you and others down. It also makes matters worse when they don’t own up to it.  They may even ignore the issue or try to hide it.

The following describes how I have learned to deal with these situations

How Leaders Commonly Respond (But Shouldn’t) When Someone Let’s Them Down

As leaders, our natural response when someone disappoints us by blundering a project or a task might include:

  • Getting upset with the person
  • Becoming frustrated and short with others
  • Blowing up when we are alone with them
  • Blaming ourselves
  • Giving up on the person we lead

I have done all of the above. But not anymore. I learned a powerful leadership principle that set me, and those who work with me, free of such reactions. Before I reveal the principle, I want to warn you, you may not like it. But keep an open mind…

Everyone is doing their best all the time. Twitter_logo_blue

First, let me try to prove to you that this is true. After I do that, I’ll show you that when you believe and practice this principle, you will stop blaming people, and start becoming more strategic with them.

Everyone Is Always Doing Their Best

The argument against this statement is obvious. When people are lazy, how is that doing their best? When people don’t finish a task, or meet a deadline, or pay attention to detail—when I know as their leader that they can—how is that doing their best?

The accepted axiom when someone is slacking is this: Their best is so much more than they are giving.

I disagree. The following is a example of a story I read that tries to prove that slackers are not doing their best. Again, I disagree with that idea, and I will disprove it here.

A teenager on his summer break, to his parents’ great displeasure, never woke up early during the summer. So, his parents bought him tickets to go surfing on the West Coast. When he was there, he woke up every day at 5am to catch the best waves. So the argument is that obviously this kid can wake up early. He has the ability to wake up early to go find a job or be productive. He did it when he went on the surfing trip. So, clearly he is not doing the best that he can do.

Isn’t that what we tell ourselves about the people we lead when they underperform? I know they can come in on time. I know they can meet their deadlines. They are just choosing not to. 

Here is my challenge with this point and this line of thinking. You see, when a person knows what needs to be done and does not deliver, it is simply because he cannot (even though he may be physically able to). Something is preventing him from meeting expectations. Whether it is a lack of wisdom, motivation, skill, work ethic, drive, or ambition, that person lacks something. Regardless of what they lack, it leads to under-delivery. They under-deliver, because theoretically they cannot meet the demand that is placed on them due to whatever it is they are lacking.

Stay with me. People—all of us—because of whatever stands in our way, do not meet standard expectations. Based on what we are missing intellectually or emotionally, or due to our flawed habits or beliefs, what we are giving in that moment is our personal best. Of course, this is not our best potential. But considering our current circumstances and frame of mind, this is our best.

If you think you can agree with this principle, here is the key that can unlock so many of your leadership woes when people drop the ball.

How Leaders Should Respond When Someone Drops the Ball

If we agree that people are always doing their best, then we are now freed from being upset with our people when they miss the mark. How can you be upset with someone if they are doing their best? After all, something they are lacking is preventing them from meeting an expectation.

You should not be upset with yourself either because you misread that person’s ability. You too are doing your best. Your current ability as a leader is such that you placed your trust in the wrong person. So, what must we do then? I am not suggesting that we allow mediocrity to creep into our teams, nor am I saying that we should practice passive leadership.

We should re-strategize. When someone we lead drops the ball, here is the approach we should follow:

  • Ask yourself how you can grow. When we find that we have misjudged a person’s ability to perform, we should ask ourselves how we can be a better judge of character in the future. What can we do to sharpen our leadership skills? That may mean we increase our discernment about who we hire, how we place them, or how we train them. Maybe we need to improve our communication skills so that we are more clear when we set our expectations and relay instructions. But the bottom line, my friend, is that when someone drops the ball, the responsibility falls back on us. Twitter_logo_blue
  • Understand that person better. Rather than being hard on someone when they fail, push yourself to understand that person’s current skillset and maturity level. For example, if that person does not meet deadlines, then you must know that. This is important information. Instead of having mental breakdowns because a person has not reached a maturity level to meet deadlines, just spend that emotional energy to discover where they are in their journey of life. Make note of it. Identify what is going on, so you would be positioned to help them.
  • Grow them. Don’t club them over the head. Help them grow. This is very important: Don’t live in the zone of having to apply force in order to get your people to perform. I don’t want to be there with the people I lead. If you have to resort to yelling, screaming, getting upset, and writing people up in order to get what is needed from them, either you or they have to leave. Or something drastic must change. I simply refuse to live there anymore as a leader. Rather, I want to live in the area of not giving up on people. Offer them training and mentorship to help them advance and get to a better place. Know where they are, and be intentional to take them to the next level.
  • Put them in the right place. Once you’ve taken measures to better understand your people, and start growing them, then you can place them accordingly. Maximize their strengths and personality types by placing them in positions where they will thrive. Set them up for success. Twitter_logo_blue

Actionable Step: When people drop the ball, don’t pass the blame. Learn to absorb the responsibility as the leader and re-strategize using the steps above.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

About me: I have two older brothers and a sister. I have four nephews and three nieces. We are all blessed to live in the same part of the country: Crowley, Texas.

For Further Reading:

When Your People Don’t Do What They Should
Don’t Blame the Person, Blame the Process

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