You Get What You Tolerate

True confession time: Sometimes leaders resent their own teams.

It’s true! I have known a few. I have even been one. I am not talking about the occasional flippant comment over drinks (though that happens, too). I am talking about aggravation, taking genuine umbrage, with your team’s dysfunction or poor performance. Feeling as though you have tried everything, the world is on your shoulders and frankly, it is unfair.

This problem does not happen overnight. In fact, I have found that typically, a resentful leader is one who is burnt out and struggling themselves, not getting what they need from their boss, and on top of it all, they have a team that needs some work. The system is broken and fixing it seems impossible.

While I have great empathy for leaders who find themselves in this situation, there is another critical aspect to this problem: It has been a while since they looked in the mirror. They have gone too long without tough love. They think they resent their team, but in reality, they resent themselves. They may not realize it yet, but they are not very skilled at setting direction and following through.

They think they set clear direction. But they said something once, as part of a passing comment during a 1:1 conversation. Or they responded to a long email chain with a sort-of request and never set a due date. Also, because they themselves are burnt out and struggling, they let things slide. They have allowed missed action items. They have accepted mediocrity for a long time. They have tolerated things they should not tolerate. And now, everything is on fire and they do not have the team built to handle it.

And do you know what I say to this leader when they complain about their team? When they say things like, “They don’t know how to…I don’t know why they didn’t…They keep doing x,y,z when I said…”


Buckle up, Buttercup. You are the boss. Your team’s success is your responsibility. You say they keep doing something wrong? Did you tell them? What did they do about it? What happened next? What did YOU do to help correct the situation and prevent it from happening again?

A critical aspect of the leader’s role is to define what is and is not tolerated. Of having a vision of what is possible and being relentless in pursuing it. Setting expectations of what good looks like and creating the environment where good can happen.

Now before you shake your head in annoyance at my lecture, hear me out. I feel your pain. I really do. I have been in that situation where you are working six to seven days a week, evenings and weekends, for years on end for a less-than-ideal boss. With unreasonable deadlines and high visibility. Trying to get it all done with an inherited team that has plenty of rebuilding to do. It is terrible and unfair and soul sucking. And sadly, far too common. And still, that does not change the role and expectations of your leadership.

Now for some good news: It is never too late to redefine expectations.

It is never too late to be different. Sure, changing course can be especially tricky when you have worked with the same people for many years. It feels awkward to suddenly say, “It is going be like this now.” But that is the leader’s role. Does it take courage? Yes. It is hard to have uncomfortable conversations. It is hard to acknowledge that maybe your own leadership is at least partly to blame for things not working. It is incredibly hard to knowingly add more friction to an already stressful environment.

However, if things are broken and incremental changes are no longer working, then it is your job to expect, and create the environment for, something better. Stop “normalizing abnormal.”  Poor customer feedback is unacceptable. Recurring safety issues are unacceptable. Chronic delays are unacceptable. Reliance on overtime and burning people out is unacceptable.

Take some space, identify what is possible and make it happen.

I know this is easier said than done. So here is some more good news: You are not alone. The weight of it all does not have to fall squarely on your shoulders. That is the beauty of setting direction and following through. Done properly, your team will be one step closer to working effectively together.

Below are example phrases you could use as part of conversations to re-set expectations, or set a new direction, with your team:

  • Here is our performance over the past six months. What trends do you see? What do you think the causes are? What are the barriers getting in your way of a successful day? What ideas do you have on how we can get back on track?
  • I have spent some time reflecting on ___ and I know we can be better. Our goal is ___ and we keep missing it. I do not have all the answers, but I do know that the way things are currently functioning is not okay. Going forward, I expect…
  • I have been hearing rumors of ____ behaviors. This is not about blame or he said / she said. I know we can do better. Going forward, I need us to recommit to how we treat each other and our colleagues. It starts today. I want to make sure that I am setting the tone and not part of the problem, so I commit to…

Acknowledge things will be different. Lead by example. Make it possible to move on and move forward. Create the environment you would be excited to inherit.

Oh, and take care of yourself. Seriously. Leadership can be grueling, thankless work. It will bleed you dry if you let it. And tough love will not work if you are too burnt out to accept it.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

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