In mountaineering we have two types of risks: Objective and Subjective. Objective risks are things like avalanches and rock fall. They are forces of nature. We can’t control them and sometimes we can’t predict them. Subjective risks are caused by human error: things like exceeding our abilities or improper use of equipment. Subjective risks are avoidable (like texting while driving). And in mountaineering subjective risks kill far more people than objective risks. In fact, the top four reasons why people die in the mountains are subjective risks. As we say, the mountains don’t kill people. People kill themselves, in the mountains.
When we evaluate dangers, we have to look at both risks. It takes wisdom to look inside ourselves and our teammates to spot subjective risks. And it takes courage to act upon any supposition that a person is the risk.
Let’s get this straight: even when we feel that a person is a risk, we still fail to act to save them and/or the team. Why is that? Because we first “feel” the problem before we can even articulate it. Not to spend too much time on the evolution of the brain, but you know that we developed feelings before we developed reasoning. Feelings pre-date words (a dog feels but cannot speak). We feel uncomfortable about someone’s behaviors before we can even tell you why.
This happens all the time. We sense something is wrong. We mull it over in our brain. We test out the words needed to describe our gut reaction by first talking about our feelings with a 3rd party (office gossip is a dirty “word” but for some people it is a necessary human response that allows an individual to process feelings). As we talk about it we better understand and validate our feelings. In a perfect world, once we validate we can act.
Too bad most people and institutions don’t have the courage or authority to act. As a result dysfunction creeps into the relationship between the person who is the danger and the group that is the potential victim. The subjective risk is labeled a threat (an idiot, jerk, loser…). Trust is eroded. Productivity slips. The team becomes dysfunctional. Look at this data:
Dysfunction happens because it is so hard to put some problems into words. We can’t find a place on a performance review to record it. We can’t list three rules that were broken. We can’t pin point the issue, but we sure do have a problem. It is causing us to lose money, lose our best employees and lose our sanity. The risk is subjective. By its very nature it is impossible to quantify or qualify the risk. But it is a real risk. It will kill. Failure to act will have real consequences.
Save yourself and your team by trusting your gut. Act on instinct. Act on feelings. Waiting to get to the point that you can objectively prove your thesis is too expensive. A sign of maturity as a leader is the ability to act based on gut instinct (feelings).
Here is a tool that should help you evaluate your team mates and give you some cover for your actions. It may help you understand why you feel so strongly about a person that is a risk to your team. I first heard about this tool from Verne Harnish and it’s simplicity resonated with me.
Take the time to plot your team members on this graph. It is generally easier for us to plot staff on the “produces strategic results” axis. That’s more objective and a more traditional business metric. Plotting them along the “alignment of core values” axis is more subjective. It is more feelings based. But feelings are real (although not always accurate), even if they are hard to articulate. Go ahead and plot your team. It should be obvious where people stand. If someone is a red: FIRED. A yellow: they need to get with the program, fast. Tell them that. Don’t waste your time arguing over tactical mistakes they’ve made. Tell them it is their responsibility to move from yellow to green. You are not Freud, you cannot fix them (fixing people is a noble endeavor but rarely successful). They have to fix themselves. A green: The rock stars! These are the people that contribute to the long term success of your organization. Give them a hug. Give them a raise. Give them opportunities.
The goal should be obvious. People have to move into the green quadrant or move to a cubicle at your competitor’s headquarters.
Trust your gut and be courageous (or lose a lot of money and wallow in mediocrity).