Martyn Drake: Don't put off those tough decisions

The Oxfam scandal shows that delaying taking a bad manager out of your charity harms your organisation, writes our columnist

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

- This article was corrected on 12 March 2018; please see final paragraph

It’s hard to read the headlines about Oxfam, and to witness the supporter desertion, without feeling some sympathy. The charity has a lot of good people and a long and proud history. It has been courageously poking the wasps nest of global inequality, to the obvious chagrin of the powerful and influential, for quite a while now.

At some point it must have known it would get stung, and the tabloid media has no shortage of venom. But even so, there’s no denying that Oxfam brought this situation entirely upon itself, and for the most basic and naive of reasons.

As anyone in customer service will tell you, it’s not the mistake that people remember, it’s how you fix it once it’s happened. The reason the public has reacted so badly to the Oxfam revelations is not that someone did something bad, but that Oxfam was seen to be complicit.

It’s the perception that the charity knew (or should have known) about the behaviour, long before it took action; that it gave someone two country director roles after a flag was raised at Merlin; and that when action finally became unavoidable, it gave him a month to "leave with dignity" instead of kicking him out immediately as an example to others. True or false, perception is reality.

Whether you like it or not, in any organisation the worst behaviour you’re seen to tolerate becomes the standard you’re seen to endorse. So why did Oxfam allow itself to be seen as endorsing such damaging standards of behaviour?

It’s because it convinced itself the easiest route was the safest.

And Oxfam is not alone. You’re probably doing it as well, right now.  

Ask any group of chief executives, from any sector, if they’ve ever fired anyone too soon and the response you’ll almost certainly get is: "No, but I can think of a few where I left it too long." I’ve probably asked more than 100 chief executives that question over the past 10 years and I’ve had a grand total of one "yes".

There’s a reason we delay firing managers whom we know need to go, the scientific evidence for which is extensive. It’s a cognitive bias that behavioural economists call "hyperbolic discounting" – a subtle but powerful preference for smaller immediate rewards over slower, longer-term gains, however poor those choices might seem in retrospect.

Waiting, hoping and encouraging someone to leave the organisation on their own terms are attractive strategies, because they avoid us having to deal with that ugly, emotional conversation, the potentially tortuous HR process, the possible legal challenge and the vacancy it will immediately introduce.

The short-term benefit of avoiding that turmoil and stress is psychologically much more attractive to us than the long-term benefit of removing a poor performer, a culturally corrosive, but high performing individual or, in Oxfam’s case, a suspect person whose actions could damage lives and shred your reputation overnight. Avoiding that confrontation – putting off the immediate, visible risk – seems the safer route, right up until the problem explodes.

We’ve all had people whom we’ve needed to move on, and we’ve all found reasons why "now isn’t the right time".

So, if we take one lesson from Oxfam, let it be this: now is always the right time. Because every day that you delay taking a bad manager out of your organisation, it costs you performance and impact, it damages team engagement, it corrodes your culture, it undermines your leadership credibility, it endangers your relationships and, ultimately, it can destroy the reputation that took you decades to build.

Is avoiding a few tough conversations really worth that risk?

Martyn Drake is the founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

- The article originally said the Oxfam country director was given a year to "leave with dignity" - this has been corrected to one month. 

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