The Problem with Telling People to Just Handle It

Or How My Employee Ended Up Going Through Other Peoples’ Garbage

Not a call that you want to receive from one of your suppliers. And hopefully not one that occurs too frequently for most people.

Yet it happened. One of my engineers had to be escorted out of a supplier’s facility. For going through their garbage.

The worst part? It was largely my fault.

Unexpected Results? Still the Leader’s Fault.

We were having issues with one of our suppliers. It was obvious they were struggling. They refused to give us a straight answer. Meanwhile critical deliveries were looming closer and our options were getting shorter by the day.

So I told an engineer to get over there. Figure out what’s going on. I don’t care how you do it — just handle it.

Dangerous words.

Because he did handle it. Just not in a way that I would have liked. Or supported. Or thought a perfectly sane person would have behaved.

In his defense, he did try some other methods first. But when they wouldn’t share information with him, he figured that maybe the trash would yield some worthwhile details. So he channeled his inner Sherlock Holmes and sought out to crack the case. And perhaps took some actions that the rest of us would have considered not a great idea.

He didn’t understand why I was upset. After all, I did say I didn’t care how he did it.

I wouldn’t have thought that I needed to say that going through their trash was outside the bounds of a reasonable expectation. Yet here we are.

Turns out, I did care. And it turns out that leading through a means of “I don’t care, just handle it,” is a really poor way to lead.

The Unintended Message of Just Handle It

“Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and most importantly, a way of communicating.” — Simon Sinek

It’s tempting to tell people to After all, we can’t make every decision all the time. But what is often meant as an opportunity for initiative takes on many different meanings, few of them good.

means I don’t care how it gets done, I just want it done. And once we lose interest in the how, we open ourselves up to all sorts of problems.

means I’m unwilling to acknowledge the trade-offs. And once we stop recognizing the trade-offs, we stop recognizing the cost. Which is a dangerous situation.

means that quality takes a backseat to done. It means that standards are lowered to whatever point is necessary. A trend that rarely self-corrects for the next time.

means that the ends justify the means. But also that I’ve got deniability. Yet every real leader knows there’s no such thing as deniability.

says that while I may have a vision, I don’t have any strategy. And as Lee Bolman warns,

means I don’t care what the impact is on you. I’ve already decided that whatever it is, it isn’t worth my consideration.

means that if you can’t handle it, I’ll find someone who can.

is a way for leaders to avoid the responsibility of actually leading. And our people deserve better than this.

The alternative is to take an interest. To realize that the what without the how is meaningless. The alternative is to recognize the trade-offs and clarify priorities. The alternative is to be a leader.

The next time you’re tempted to tell someone to , make sure the message you’re communicating is the one that you want to come across.

And generally just make sure your people know that going through others’ trash is not a condoned activity.


Enemy of the Status Quo.

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