Do You Bail Your People Out? Rescue Management Diminishes Employee Accountability

I recently had a VP tell me that she had assigned one of her directors the task of doing a comparability study of their company’s compensation and benefits vis-à-vis other companies in their industry.  After the director had completed the study, the VP grilled the director on his findings.  The director had a difficult time answering the questions that she asked and came across as lacking in confidence. The VP was then faced with a dilemma: should she make the presentation to the Board of Trustees herself or should she run the risk of allowing the director to make the presentation of his project? 

The VP asked the director what his preference was.  The director willingly surrendered the assignment for giving the presentation to the VP.  The VP then reluctantly accepted.  When I asked her why she had taken on the assignment, she responded, “I just couldn’t take the risk that our department would look bad because of a poor presentation.” We call this leadership behavior “rescue” management. Rescue management is engaging in any number of behaviors that suggests to the individual that they don’t need to be responsible to do their work because you will do it for them.

Why do We Engage in Rescue Management?

We engage in rescue management for a number of reasons. Sometimes leaders take on a task because they want to achieve the desired results and they believe that the responsible party will fail. Other times they engage in “rescuing” behavior because they believe that if they rescue the person that they will improve their performance in the future. Additionally, I have wondered if some leaders are not comfortable allowing others to own their results. Such a leader may be comfortable assigning specific tasks, but they are either consciously or unconsciously uncomfortable or unwilling to let go of the responsibility for the results.  

Sometimes when people don’t perform, we find it easier to lay the blame at their feet rather than take a look at how we may contribute to the current challenge. Whether we hire or inherit people without the requisite skills, we often prop up their lack of ability by engaging in rescue management rather than taking steps to help them develop the skills they need or find someone who has the requisite skills needed to do the job.

Here are a few ideas that you might want to consider for improving accountability and your behavior to improve results.

Check Your Directions

If you are on the receiving end of less-than-desirable results, perhaps you should examine the specificity and clarity of the directions that you provide. Sometimes leaders spoon-feed just enough information for doing a task, so the person can do “something” but it is not the “right” thing.  If you are vague in your requests or directions, your lack of specificity allows the individual the opportunity to interpret or “make their own best guess” about what you really wanted.  If you continually don’t get what you want, take a look at the directions you gave. Were they specific? Detailed? Did you allow the person the opportunity to ask any questions they might have had? Did you offer support? Did you provide clear directions or did you assume they understood?

Are You Holding Difficult Conversations?

If you are not getting what you want, then you need to hold what we call the difficult conversation. If such conversations are held effectively, we call such conversations REAL conversations because they always create the intended results.  If you are not getting the desired results, then you need to provide feedback that will help that person clearly understand your expectations.

Oft times, people believe that no news is good news.  If you aren’t providing the necessary information about what is expected, then you will most likely get more of what you don’t want. The challenge is to hold the types of conversations that will help the individual to grow and develop. And of course, you will want to speak in a way that creates respect, improves the quality of the relationship, and delivers results.

Do You Hire People to Compensate for Others’ Deficiencies?

Every leader or manager wants to have individuals on their teams that can complete the required work and be accountable for results.  Sometimes they discover that certain individuals have difficulty completing certain assignments. When this happens, many leaders often assign difficult work to those who are more competent, or they hire others who have the skills and experience that the team needs. When this happens, the competent worker becomes resentful because everyone usually knows which individuals are incompetent. If others are hired to make up for others’ inadequacies, then these leaders must ask themselves what the rationale is for keeping those individual would can’t perform.

The question above is aimed at helping you to determine if you are adding bodies to compensate for the inability that someone of standing on your team should possess but doesn’t. If this is the case, then perhaps you should clearly delineate what competencies are required of certain positions and if the individual in that position possesses the capability to learn the required skills. Adding more bodies doesn’t solve the problem of the person who can’t perform.

Are You Getting Apologies, Not Results?

Often when we give feedback to those who are performing poorly, our feedback triggers sincere apology and statements of commitment to redouble effort, but then nothing changes. There may be a flurry of activity, however the results do not materially change and the poor performance and apologies are repeated.  If this is a familiar situation, you’ll need to determine a course of action that will benefit your team, as well as the person in question.  Multiple apologies still may not create results. However, such apology often serves as an endearment for the person who is willing to concede that they performed poorly which makes it more difficult to make a needed change.

Do You Make Plans?

If you have done a good job of assessing an individual’s strengths and deficiencies, then you should have helped them to identify particular goals or skills you would like them to achieve or acquire. You should be holding regular conversations with them about their progress and development.  These conversations should also include positive acknowledgements of work well done as well as identification of areas for needed improvement. You must have a plan to insure success.  Remember that individuals are more motivated by the positive recognition and acknowledgement than continuous criticism of unmet expectations.

Set Aside Your Emotions

The negative or “hot” emotions you may experience when interacting with an individual are a cue that there is an unresolved problem.  What is going on in your mind usually shows up in your display of negative emotion. Taking some time to reflect on the situation as well as your role in it will help you neutralize your emotions and get to the heart of the problem.  Set aside your feelings about the situation and look for specific examples of things that aren’t working well. Once you have identified the issues and supporting data, you can determine an appropriate course of action.

Understanding whether or not you are bailing people out is the key to improving employee performance and accountability.  Once you recognize how your leadership behavior is impacting the people working with you, you can take steps to improve mutual understanding and help them achieve the best results possible even it means letting them go.


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