When pressed for time, particularly when you are rushing somewhere in your car to make an appointment, clarity of thought sometimes goes out the window. You encounter an orange light and do what most people do – you speed up. Orange lights have become the international symbol for “go faster”! They seem to have lost their intended purpose, namely, slow down and come to a halt.
Unfortunately, as leaders, we often adopt the same practice when it comes to emerging performance or relational issues with our employees. We hear or see something that concerns us, see a reaction that spells potential trouble, feel that we are running into difficulty and the same will slow our team down from achieving the requirements, so we ignore the issue and attempt to motivate the team to stay focused and get on with the work at hand. We speed up to avoid running into our own worst fears – potential confrontation and unpleasant discussions. Ultimately we are afraid that the light will turn to red and we will not know how to handle the situation.
Part of our leadership responsibility is to be authentic with our employees. If we can’t slow down for orange lights, authenticity is at risk and we may exacerbate the situation. If we are ultimately going to be confronted with a red light (performance that is not improving, bad behaviour, relational intolerance), it is better to deal with it sooner rather than later. A problem that is festering beneath the surface can wreak irreparable damage if left unnoticed and ignored. During conversations with your team, constant signals are being given about how they are feeling and what they are thinking. The signals will come through words that are used, the tone of the conversation and through body language – the manager needs to be aware and sense the mood of the signals and deal with them with wisdom.
The following suggestions might be helpful for the leader to “manage” the lights within his or her team:
- Slow down for orange lights – once you are aware of a potential issue, have a discussion about it with the people involved.
- Pass the orange light back to the offending parties and ask them to turn it into a red or a green light. In other words, you are asking them to come up with solutions to improve performance, their relationship or whatever the issue is. They need to take ownership of the problem.
- If the light is turned to green (that is, the employee/s come up with potential solutions to the issue), they take responsibility for the outcomes. Agree on timelines and preferred outcomes with them.
- If the light is turned to red (an impasse in a relationship, refusal to behave in accordance with company values, digging in their heels in terms of performance), this does not indicate that you are a failure as a leader, but it does require decisive action on your part. Again, outline the issues at stake, indicate to the employee/s the effect that this is having on the team, on productivity and on the company as a whole and hand the red light back to the employee/s with the requirement that they find a way to turn it into green. Performance management, coaching, training, counselling and mentoring are other potential ingredients to the solution.
When the orange light of performance, attitude or relational issues is presented within your team, the manager must slow down to address the issue. Speeding up to get the team focused and productive, thus casting a blind eye to the emotional dissonance within the team, could spell disaster and at the very least, could negatively impact your influence and authenticity. Slow down and deal with it.