Through the years, I've spent a lot of time working with leaders who were in trouble and teams that weren't performing well. I'm often asked to invest significant time working with these struggling leaders, who frequently run critical departments, with the real request being to get this situation turned around.
How do you know when a situation isn't salvageable, though?
It sounds like a Draconian question to ask, especially for many of us who feel like people can turn things around when given a chance and the right support. After working with these kinds of situations for a long time, you do start to see some trends that help you figure out if more investment in time and energy will help turn the tides.
But you also start to pick up key signs that lead to you to the harder and often darker emotional place where you have to accept that things won't get better and that the real solution here might be to let the leader go and take everyone (including the leader) out of their collective misery.
It's a decision point many of us have been in. It's not a fun position decision point, but here is what I look for to help me feel like we are making the right decision for everyone involved:
1. The leader can't or won't "own" his or her role in the team's problem or the behavior change he or she needs to make
This often comes in the form of explaining away challenging realities of the leader's own leadership style, denial, or even not having any awareness that the problem stems from something he or she is doing.
It doesn't make these leaders bad people, but it does make breaking through the barrier towards doing things differently or behaving differently almost impossible.
When a leader can't own the behavior change he or she needs to make and therefore doesn't make that change, the team often comes to the collective conclusion that "as long as this leader is in charge, nothing is going to change around here."
And that is a place of giving up, which is difficult to recover from.
2. The leader has lost credibility with the team and other key leaders
Once leaders get to a place where they are essentially being "written off" due to lack of credibility, it becomes a perpetual uphill battle.
I often describe it to struggling leaders as them having to accept the reality that they start every conversation with their team and others as if they were standing in a 10-foot hole. It's hard to have a positive impact when others don't even view you at level ground.
The bigger problem here is sustainability of improvements. I have seen leaders make changes that look good in the short term. But when you start in a 10-foot hole, as soon as a mistake is made or you fall off of the proverbial wagon, people put you right back in the hole as if the improvements never happened.
People view the improvements as the aberration not the old behavior. It is certainly unfair to the leader but happens frequently.
3. The trust is gone
In my work with leaders in trouble, I have found that things can turn around until you start to hear too many people express that they can't or don't trust that leader anymore.
That lack of trust could be the result of a history of events that have led people to distrust that leader or even recent developments. Either way, trust to most people doesn't come lightly. For many, it takes a long time to build it and once you've violated it, getting it back is an almost an insurmountable task.
When people don't trust their leader, they become suspicious, often to a neurotic level, of everything that leader does, doesn't do, says, or doesn't say.
It becomes almost unwinnable for the leader.
This isn't to say that I haven't seen leaders rebuild trust, but it doesn't happen fast. And when combined with loss of credibility and lack of ownership of behavior changes they need to make, cutting ties might just be what is needed.
Whereas no one wants to be let go, almost counter-intuitively I have found that many struggling leaders who have the cord cut express feelings and sentiments that sound a lot like relief. That weight they had been carrying around on their shoulders was lifted and not prolonged unnecessarily.
So don't shy away from the hard decision when all of the signs are there. The team will certainly be grateful, but sometimes even the leader will be grateful as well.