Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for many years and have both observed and participated in the telling of angel stories—essentially the opposite of villain stories. I see a pattern of supervisors excusing problematic behavior because the employee in question has a really good heart and, therefore, good intentions. It seems to be a similar phenomenon to the helpless stories mentioned in Crucial Conversations, but I’m wondering if you have any additional insight into this particular kind of story.
Stumped by an Angel
Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking question. You’re right, not all stories we tell ourselves about other people are negative. Instead of immediately imputing bad motive or evil intentions to others (the most common form of storytelling) sometimes we invent a cover-all positive motive. Then, as you’re suggesting, we excuse the problem because the person has a good heart.
Now, when you say that you “excuse” the other person, I’m guessing that you mean one of two things. Either you talk to the person, solve the problem, but don’t impose any sanctions or, and this is the more likely choice, you turn a blind eye to the problematic behavior. After all, this is a well-intended person. And within the walls of a not-for-profit organization, the person in question might even be a volunteer. Who’s going to confront a well-intended volunteer?
Let me address the second response—you chose not to say anything to the “angel” because, by golly, they’re just so nice, gracious, and always wanting to do the right thing. This is a mistake. As tempting as it is to say nothing to others about problems they create, remaining mum can be quite dangerous. It allows the problem to continue, it deprives the other person of what could be helpful feedback, and it adds to a culture of poor or missing accountability. Plus, and this is a slightly more obscure (but equally true) consequence, it burdens the other person with a label (albeit a nice one) that is simplistic and hard to live up to.
Just how serious is categorizing individuals as good hearted, and then letting their bad behavior go unaddressed? Well, when it comes to the person holding the good thoughts, certainly it’s better to think well of others than it is to always assume the worst. Nevertheless, when it comes to the consequences to the organization, thinking good thoughts and allowing incompetence to continue can be devastating.
Over the years, I’ve made the following observations about the varied (and potentially dangerous) blends of likability and competence. People who are incompetent and unlikeable—well, they’re obviously history, usually they’re the first out the door. Not only do they screw up, but nobody wants to work with them. People who are likable and competent tend to have long, rich careers wherever they choose to work. And, people who are unlikable and competent are generally cordoned off and left alone.
And let’s not forget the final and most dangerous combination—folks who are incompetent but likable—the “angel” you’ve referred to. On bad days they’re referred to as “dead wood.” Whatever their label, they can kill your company. They don’t contribute, but manage to hang on for years anyway.
Underlying the strategy of being kind to people with a good heart you’ll find an erroneous assumption. We’re hesitant to hold pleasant people accountable—because we think doing so is in some way harsh, mean, or insensitive. We don’t want to hurt nice people and the mere act of pointing out a problem is hurtful. Isn’t it?
Underlying this assumption you’ll find a predictable pattern. We hold back on saying something to a poor performer (for the reasons just outlined), become increasingly annoyed with their substandard output, and then eventually say something—but with at least a harsh tone, and maybe even in a hurtful way—confirming our suspicion that talking about problems is a hurtful thing.
The solution to all of this is to rid ourselves of the notion that talking to people about problems is inherently harsh or insensitive. It isn’t. It’s often the most helpful and kind thing we can do—that is, if we don’t allow ourselves to put it off until we’re angry and ineffective. Describing the problem in clear, un-inflammatory terms, and then simply asking the other person for his or her point of view provides a wonderful start to what can then be an important problem-solving conversation. The other person is now aware of your point of view and the two of you can openly discuss what, if anything, needs to improve.
My coauthors and I cover this interaction in detail in our book Crucial Conversations, so there’s more to be done than simply getting off on a good foot, but for now, at least, I’d like to keep my focus on the underlying cause.
Let’s not burden people with unhelpful labels. It keeps us from simply talking to them as fellow human beings. Let’s also not continue to hold the belief that talking about problems is inherently hurtful. Talking openly, honestly, and professionally is generally the most humane response.