You think you're an understanding leader with a finger on your team's pulse. Your team might feel you're letting them down.

At a workshop I led, I asked leaders to talk about employees who were causing stress. One Inc. 5000 leader said he had a high performer who worked circles around everyone else. "But?" I asked.

"But she does it to the point of being toxic," he said. "She'll lie and say she has something covered, but she won't have it -- she'll instead work all weekend to make it perfect. People have told us that they've quit because of her domineering personality. She can be really mean and critical."

"So why is she still there?" I asked.

"She really produces for us -- and so well -- that we'd have to hire two or three people just to replace her," he said.

It became apparent that he was buying into her story instead of framing it himself.

Be careful in defining success

The boss bought into her story that it took that level of domination -- and harsh behavior -- to succeed. She dictated what success looked like; he over-indexed and agreed with her view of the situation. And that left him stuck.

It wasn't just him, either -- he was ensuring a culture of growth didn't take hold in his company. People were so busy avoiding the high performer that they didn't focus on anything but meeting their numbers and evading scrutiny.

Compassionate leadership has taken center stage. In fact, a "gentle spirit" was named one of the four leadership traits Millennials most wanted in a 2014 survey.

The problem: When you go too far in extending compassion, you can hurt your team. To avoid appearing dismissive or out of touch, you veer to the other extreme. If you're too forgiving or too accepting, you can inadvertently allow excuses to take over.

Your help is hurting

One Gallup study from 2015 found that half of employees leave their jobs to get away from their managers. The study revealed that leaders who don't emphasize performance management and strong communication dilute engagement, eventually pushing employees to seek greener pastures.

The painful part is that they don't even realize they're doing it. Many enlightened bosses listen to their employees to understand and empathize with what their teams are going through. But accepting every word as gospel quickly transitions from empathy to sympathy.

Google's "Project Aristotle" study set out to identify the factors that empowered teams to be successful. The most important was "psychological safety." Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't indicate they felt coddled -- they felt confident they wouldn't be embarrassed or penalized for attempting something new or making a mistake.

An easy way to distinguish between enabling behavior and growth-oriented behavior is to consider how you'd respond to an employee reporting a failure. The overly compassionate response would be "You'll get 'em next time. People just weren't ready for such an advanced idea."

A growth-focused reaction would ensure the team didn't feel ostracized for trying but would dig into the failure to apply its lessons to the next attempt. "What do you think happened? Did we miss something in terms of tone or context?" Listening can often be a learning tool in a leader's toolbox, not just a counseling one.

How to check your overly available tendencies

Getting out of an emotionally enabling mindset can be hard -- for both you and your employees. Here are a few ways to stay strong:

1. Push them past barriers. Some employees make excuses because they're scared; some because they're lazy. These people will always have a story explaining why they couldn't meet an expectation. They'll only overcome their fears -- or develop a stronger work ethic -- if you push them to question those barriers. Don't let them erect barriers without determining whether they're real.

2. Hold them accountable for their growth. While your teammates often need your insights, they shouldn't rely on you to take ownership of their growth. Empower them to solve problems themselves. If you jump in too quickly, they'll always expect you to tell them what to do next. Push them to come to you with potential solutions before immediately offering yours.

3. Remember that failure isn't the demoralizing factor. If an employee fails and finds a way forward, he won't be demoralized -- he'll develop confidence in his abilities. Never testing himself would be demoralizing. The longer you let people feel sorry for themselves, the longer they'll hold themselves back.

By reflecting and accepting your employees' excuses, you prevent them from meeting their potential. If you learn to reframe their stories, you'll both be a lot happier with the ending.

Published on: Sep 20, 2018