Archives for category: discipline

This year’s Oscars and the Best Picture mix-up gave me the perfect excuse to explore one of my favourite topics – how humans make mistakes and why we so often, fail to prevent them.

As everyone not currently living in a jungle without access to electronic media knows, the wrong movie was announced for best picture because the wrong envelope was given to presenter Warren Beatty.

It seems so simple – a distracted PwC representative (and who wouldn’t be in that environment) hands the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. Simple human error, right? Shoot the perpetrator and move on… Yes and no.

When something like this happens, the media (and many of us) howl for someone’s head because – we collectively wonder – “How could they stuff up so badly?”

The more spectacular the mistake, the more vengeance that is demanded and despite living in the Internet age and considering ourselves socially evolved, many still want blood in some form when someone makes a mistake, commits a crime or causes an accident. (Just listen to the fans at a sports event when the umpire gets a decision wrong!)

The urge to punish, harks back to the beginning of human history and is demonstrated by the masses that until relatively recently in our history, would come out to witness witch burnings, beheadings or hangings, regardless of whether the ‘guilty’ person was in fact guilty.

The problem is that while vengeance or punishment might be satisfying and can have a damping effect on the intentional violation of rules, (although if it was really effective we would have no-one in prison) it is entirely ineffective in preventing mistakes.

Mistakes are a normal result of the limitations of human cognition. We all make mistakes. Mistakes come in many forms but essentially, are an unintended outcome from a specific action.

So can we prevent mistakes? No – and anyone who tells you otherwise, does not understand human cognitive limits and the behaviour that can follow.

It is quite simply impossible to create a mistake-free world, but we can do a pretty good job of preventing mistakes from having a negative outcome, by creating systems and processes that trap them. It is in this that PwC seems to have failed spectacularly. How?

For convenience, they had a system of duplicate envelopes with the details of the winners in each category and this allowed presenters to enter from different sides of the stage, presumably to make the flow on and off stage, more efficient.

However, this was such an obvious opportunity for error to creep in, it should have been held in check by a protective system – perhaps something as simple as disposal of the spare envelopes, following the announcement of each category. Had this happened, no amount of distraction would have caused the eventual chaos and embarrassment that occurred, and the PwC representatives would not have to be in hiding…

So, as we slowly put down the flaming torches and pitchforks, it might be helpful to work out where the human error sequence actually began. After all, this is the only way to prevent the same thing from happening again.

In reality there were numerous places where this error might have been trapped and embarrassment avoided – beginning with the design of the process for handing out the envelopes, the lack of a 2-person verification system as each category approached and finally the lack of an envelope disposal system, as each category was announced.

The person handing the envelopes to the presenter, was simply the last domino to fall. Laying all the blame at the feet of the PwC person handing out the cards may be convenient but will not solve the problem of a re-occurrence. The system needs to be changed.

This is where cries of derision usually erupt, objecting to ‘blaming the system’ for our own faults and yet this is an approach that can dramatically reduce mistakes which create negative outcomes and in fact, has transformed safety in many industries, beginning with aviation, which has become the safest form of transportation ever devised.

In aviation safety, the concept of ‘pilot error’ was retired long ago (although the media doggedly hangs onto it for effect) and instead, the entire environment in which mistakes occur is scrutinised, sometimes beginning as far back as the design of the aircraft. Aviation leads the world in the understanding of what we call Human Factors – the cognitive and behavioural weaknesses in humans, that lead to mistakes and in creating systems that trap errors before they cause harm. We proceed with the absolute certainty that humans are incredibly creative and will, inadvertently, find a way around whatever error prevention process we put in place, so we diligently work to create layered defences of processes, actions, double checks and warnings that keep us all safe in the air. Importantly, pilots and engineers are usually not punished for mistakes (as distinct from intentional violations) and are encouraged to self-report errors so that lessons can be learned.

How effective is this approach to preventing negative outcomes from mistakes?

In 2015 3.2 Billion people flew on the world’s airlines yet there was not a single loss of a jet airliner and no resulting deaths. In the same period 1.2 million people died on the world’s roads. That’s quite a contrast…

So next time you are tempted to unload on your favourite error-prone employee, ask yourself, “How much of this do I (or the organisation) own?” Then set about examining the whole picture, not just the hapless individual in your cross-hairs.


One of the more common phrases I have heard from managers struggling with what appears to be a failing employee, is “I will just have to manage them out.”

This idea has always puzzled me. What they are effectively saying is that they will have to go through the required steps of ‘performance management’ in order to get rid of this person. In other words, the decision is made, so now we just have to build a paper trail and get rid of them without getting into trouble.

With this singular change of mindset, we have moved from using coaching as a tool to gain improvement, to a hollow sham, required to terminate someone’s employment without getting sued.

By necessity this involves deception, as the employee thinks they are getting help when in fact the leader is just ‘going through the motions’ towards a predetermined outcome. I have never understood how any business can justify this kind of behaviour and still claim to have a good leadership culture. It is utter nonsense and also completely unnecessary.

Over the years, when I have been asked to coach a manager struggling with this process, I have usually found that the reason they are stressed is that they know they have not offered the employee the kind of coaching or mentoring that they should have. Maybe they don’t have the skills or just haven’t prioritised it highly enough but now the pressure is on and they don’t know what to do.

I usually begin the session with a series of diagnostic questions. So Allison, let’s start with the records of their training, the coaching you have done, their probationary reports and annual reviews and see what we have.”

Awkward silence usually follows.

“Ahh, I think I have some diary notes somewhere.” Shuffle, shuffle. More silence”

And don’t think this only happens with small businesses. I have sat across the table from HR Directors at very large companies, asking the same questions, asking them to show me evidence of what policies applied and what was done to help the employee only to have the same result. Even large companies with outwardly good reputations and ‘values’ (brands you would know) struggle to have any kind of consistency in how they deal with their people.

Companies that use robust recruiting methods (behavioural profiling, job profiling and properly trained interviewers) start off on the right track but it has to be followed up. During the probation period which us usually 6 months, the ‘new hire’ needs regular coaching sessions with their leader to ensure they are on the right track and have all the support they need.

In Australia, a Learner Driver needs 100 hours of active mentoring in varied road conditions before being given a licence and even then, has restrictions on them for years afterwards yet some companies are happy to hand over a job to someone after a tour of the office and the tea room. Training will be offered if the job has a technical element but often it is just a case of ‘get on with the job’ and opportunities to shape the performance of the new person are lost. Importantly they are often left to interpret the workplace culture without any help, so it’s no wonder many struggle through their first year…

In most cases if the leader carries out effective and thorough probation coaching and mentoring, it will be clear if the person is not suited to the job, long before the company ‘owns’ them. It will also be clear to the employee and they may leave of their own accord, which is as it should be.

Effective leadership and coaching can also catch problems long before they become serious enough to consider ‘managing someone out. Most problems can be corrected and can even be prevented if we ask ourselves as leaders, “Could anyone else have made the same mistake or had the same problem?”  If the answer is yes, then we have a ‘system problem’ not an employee one and getting rid of this person won’t make any difference.

In any case, prevention is the always best option and that starts with effective leadership and coaching from Day 1, not just when the calendar pings and tells you it’s time for their annual review. (If you have to think about what to write at annual review time, it means you haven’t been paying attention.)

However, if you get to the point that you have offered the employee all the help and assistance there is available, have documented your efforts and their commitment to improve and their performance is still not satisfactory, you might find that again, they leave voluntarily but if not, you can let them go, knowing you have done everything you can.

As a bonus the steps you have gone through to help them, also take care of your obligations to offer assistance and support.

Importantly, your other employees will see this and know you are a person of integrity and that can only be good…


Carrying out a ‘performance management’ (I prefer performance improvement) discussion can be one of the most challenging tasks a leader can undertake.

Many leaders avoid these altogether or try to palm them off onto HR.Some wait until the pain of non-performance is so great that it exceeds the discomfort of having the discussion.

The truth it that it doesn’t have to be that hard. Really…

So how can you reduce the discomfort?

Well first, let me repeat my suggested NAKED LEADERSHIP problem solving mantra:

When despite your best efforts, something goes wrong and someone screws up, the first question you need to ask is

“How much of this do I own?”

That’s right – you, the company and anyone with a degree of influence over what has gone wrong.

You must with excruciating fairness, thoroughly explore the procedures and processes, including recruitment and selection, the communication, timely feedback, measurement, coaching and training (all documented of course!) and anything else that you have a responsibility to provide, to see if it has gone awry.

If you don’t bother and you eventually fire the employee, anything missing in the above can be cause for an unfair dismissal case.

More importantly, this process can help identify if someone else is likely to have the same problem. if that is possible, then you have a system problem more than an employee one and ‘shooting’ this person is not going to change that.

If after reviewing these key areas, you come to the conclusion that you have done as much as you can to help your team member onto the right path and they are not performing, you need to find out why and that means a coaching meeting.

Now a key point: Never, Never get emotionally involved in the issue. It may affect you and even your own KPIs but it is essential that you ‘park’ this and that it remains an objective discussion about the problem not the person.

You must play the role of an Umpire and a Coach.

  • In any performance meeting your job is to gather as many available facts and evidence as you can and then treat it like a mystery or a puzzle: The mystery is: Why is this employee not performing as required?

This is an entirely different approach to going in and telling them to pick up their game or else!

If you attack they will fight back, or dodge the issue or cry or call the union or HR. That’s Humans 101.

Remaining calm and impartial can help people accept responsibility to self correct.

It is crucial that you ask ‘open’ questions and let them do most of the talking. This can be as simple as sitting down and factually laying out the areas of concern. Avoid any emotional statements or accusations.

Use neutral questioning language such as: “Jeff I wanted to talk to you because I have noticed that your last three reports have been submitted at least two days late and contained a number of errors (place the reports on the table for him to review) . I have looked over the performance requirements of your role and your training in this area (place these on the table for him as well) . Can you have a look and help me understand how this has come about?”

Do not speak again until he does. Allow as much time as it takes.The silence is a tool – avoid filling it with personal justification for talking to him. In other words Shut up…

Your whole purpose is to provide information and then have Jeff measure himself against his job description, work requirements and any instructions you have given him.

When he comments he may simply accept responsibility or may try to make excuses. Either way you need to ask him if there is any specific reason why this is happening. Remember we are trying to determine the cause, not pin the blame.

  • Avoiding unnecessary criticism or visible annoyance (including tone of voice) can get much better results.
  • Remember you are not doing anything to Jeff. You are simply holding him responsible for the work for which he is being paid.
  • It may take some practice to remain detached but it makes it a better process for everyone. The employee doesn’t feel like a naughty child and you don’t feel like an angry parent.

If you get emotionally involved, you are as the old saying goes “Making a Monkey for your own back”. Getting emotionally involved can cause you to say things that you will regret or be perceived as unprofessional or hostile. Not a good look.

After he has clearly seen the contrast between what is required and what he has been doing, ask:

“So Jeff, as I have pointed out, your work is important to our team and I really need to be able to rely on you. Can you tell me how you plan to get back on track?”

Get specifics and a commitment within a time frame that works for you.(You must allow a reasonable time to correct performance). You also need to offer any reasonable support to help him. That is not only a requirement under most workplace laws it is good business. replacing employees is expensive!

Remember it is not your job to do Jeff’s job, it is his.

You simply need to provide him with necessary resources and support so he can perform. If he consistently fails to perform you simply repeat the process but let him know that this cannot continue happening.

I have found this approach usually identifies problems and in the vast majority of cases, the employee accepts responsibility and self corrects. Most people want to do a good job but they also need to have an Umpire and Coach to keep them on track.

Playing this role is a lot less stressful than playing judge and executioner.

Remember a coach can still ‘bench’ or replace a player if necessary.

Hanging in our bathroom at home is a lovely framed Ken Duncan photograph that depicts a small wooden row-boat anchored in the still waters of a wide blue lake. The caption reads-“Silence is sometimes the best Answer’. I couldn’t agree more. (I have attached it below in case some of you are feeling stressed right now. Take a minute…breathe… and look at it…)

Recently, I have been participating in Linked-in conversation regarding how to deal with an ‘Insubordinate employee’ and as I was writing my response, that lovely image came to mind, so I offered some perspective to the group.

I thought it may be worth sharing this with my wider audience, in case it might be of use.

From the outset, the use of the term ‘Insubordinate’ irked me. It is an old military term and despite being ex-military myself, I find it smacks of oppressive thinking, low E.Q. and an inflexible mind.

I have not found very many situations where a leader using a Socratic investigative method has not been able to determine that there is far more to the situation than someone simply saying ‘No.’  The word ‘Insubordination’ has no place in the modern business world.

The simple truth is that ‘normal’ people do not usually get up one day, dress for work and say to themselves “Today-I am going to get myself fired.” There is always a reason.

For many years as a leader, performance management arbitrator, lecturer and consultant, I have consistently applied the methodology of Aviation Human Factors Investigation in dealing with performance issues.

So what has that got to do with dealing with ‘Sonia the Serial Stuff-up’?  Well, it has to do with the ‘Why’.

Quite often after an aircraft accident, you will hear the term; ‘pilot error’ bandied about by uneducated commentators but in reality, it is never used in aviation investigations because we know that situations almost never arise out of a single event and unless you address all of the causal factors, you are likely to see the same thing happen again. It is this kind of thinking that had made aviation the safest widespread technological endeavour in human history.

As leaders, we sometimes have too little objectivity and let our emotions get away from us. In Naked Leadership® I coined a term known as DIS-connecting. (No I didn’t invent the concept of disconnecting your toaster before sticking a knife in it to retrieve an errant muffin – that is natural selection at work!) 

The DIS is short for Dynamic Internalised Separation and the key is that it is Dynamic. You must actively take time to divorce your emotions from any comment you might make in tense situations. There is a complex cascading biochemical reaction that occurs when we are under stress (i.e. an employee telling us to do physically impossible things with ourselves) and it inhibits rational thinking for both the manager and the team member.

So best to sit down with your team member and ask them to start at the beginning and tell you everything.

Naked Clue #2′ is Ask Questions and Shut Up and Listen” for a reason. It works… My favourite opener is to sit back and ask  

So Jenny-What’s up?

If they start babbling incoherently and defending their actions you can say: “Hang on a second – sit back and take a breath. No-one is getting shot today – I just want to find out what this is all about”.

It is amazing the relief you see on their faces and they then quite often feel obliged to be honest because you have treated them calmly and fairly. 

The more carefully crafted questions you ask and the longer you listen without speaking – the more you will find out. Any good detective or military interrogator knows this. In my case, even when I think they are finished speaking, I count to ten mentally, before saying anything. Usually the thoughtful silence will bring out more information. I repeat this until I can get to ten seconds without further comments and then I ask another open question related to the event.

If you are patient you will eventually find out what has caused this issue and then you can deal with the source of the problem, rather than chopping of the head of the person who happened to inadvertently bring it to you.

I have experienced very few situations where the person offering the inappropriate statement or action will not apologise at the end of the conversation and as a bonus; you have usually found that this situation affects more than one person, so you have an opportunity to benefit the whole department or company.

It takes much more time than shooting someone but the benefits far outweigh the costs…Image