How do you address confusion, friction, and underperformance as a leader?

A man with his head in his hands

Share Article

As a facilitator, there are typically two types of programs that I run. Firstly, there are workshops where I have created all the content from scratch; and then there are workshops where I am asked to deliver material prepared by other experts in the L&D space. 

When the material is my own, I obviously have completely free reign around how I decide to deliver the content. When it’s someone else’s material, it usually comes with a fairly comprehensive facilitator guide which I am encouraged to stick to as closely as possible. 

Last week I was running a “type two” workshop for a group of 18 mid-level leaders from across a few different government agencies. 

It was day one of the program and this particular session was the one right after the morning tea break. 

The narrative in the facilitator guide said, “Display slide #18. You may choose to ask one of the participants to read it out loud. Then ask the group, ‘What does leadership mean to you?’ [30 minutes]”. 

Here’s what was displayed on the slide: 

“As management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Only three things happen naturally in organisations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.” 

While preparing for the workshop I remember thinking to myself that half an hour wouldn’t be anywhere near enough time to answer such a deep (almost philosophical) question.  

As soon as everyone was back from morning tea, I brought the slide up on the big screen. 

Before I even had a chance to ask someone to read the quote out loud, one of the participants said, “All I do is deal with friction, confusion, and underperformance. What on earth does he mean by ‘everything else’?”. He then started to laugh and then several other participants started laughing, too. At first, I couldn’t tell if it was nervous or genuine laughter. But most of the room was laughing. 

As a facilitator, I appreciated that the point of this particular slide was to suggest that in most organisations, problems like friction, confusion and underperformance typically arise naturally and without any external influence. However, good leadership is necessary to achieve positive results such as innovation, productivity, and strong employee engagement. In other words, Peter Drucker’s quote emphasizes that a lack of leadership can result in negative outcomes and can hinder a company’s progress. 

As soon as the laughter subsided, the group started sharing personal anecdotes about the levels of friction, confusion, and underperformance within their respective agencies, along with their own tips and suggestions for how best to deal with these problems. 

The session took on a life of its own. I was very comfortable seeing how this would play out. And I certainly wasn’t going to cut them off at the 30-minute mark. 

At the beginning of the day, I had encouraged the group to challenge each other and themselves and I had assured them that this was a psychologically safe space. 

I was witnessing some awesome, robust conversations and so from morning tea to the lunch break, I went completely off script and deviated right away from the facilitator guide. But this was peer learning at its best. 

Here are some of the key take-aways from our discussion. 

How do you address friction and conflict as a leader? 

Handling conflict in a team can be a challenging task for any leader, but it is essential to ensure a team’s success. 

The consensus was that the best way to address (and ideally reduce) levels of friction within an organisation is to create a culture of collaboration and open communication. Collaboration can help build stronger relationships and create a sense of shared ownership, leading to more effective problem solving, while encouraging team members to express their concerns openly will ensure that they feel heard and understood. 

As I walked around the tables listening to the conversations unfold, I also heard variations of a theme around identifying the underlying cause of friction before attempting to address it and how it’s important to take the time to understand what’s causing the friction and what’s motivating the parties involved. Is it a difference in personalities or work styles, or a disagreement about goals and priorities? 

If you notice friction within your team, address it early on to prevent it from escalating.  

Having said that, it’s important to remain neutral and not take sides. Instead, focus on the facts and the issues at hand. Ignoring the issue can cause unnecessary tension to build, leading to more significant problems down the road. 

In an ideal world, you would encourage your team members to work together to resolve the friction, however in some cases it may be too difficult to resolve internally at which point you might want to consider bringing in a neutral third party such as a mediator or representative from HR. 

How do you address confusion as a leader? 

From what I could tell from the group, confusion is a common problem in each of their agencies so one could probably assume that confusion exists in every workplace, which can quickly lead to decreased productivity and low morale. 

One of the most effective ways to alleviate confusion is to ensure that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities, as well as the goals and objectives of the organisation. 

This comes down to setting clear expectations

Your team members want clarity. They don’t want any confusion. Above all, they want you to set clear (and ideally realistic) expectations as part of their path to success resulting in higher performance and an increase in the level of employee confidence. 

Your people need (and want) context, so it’s therefore important to articulate the Why.  

Exactly why are you setting the expectations? How does what you expect of them fit into the bigger picture? You want the members of your team to know that what they are doing is important regardless of where they sit in the organisational structure. 

How do you address underperformance as a leader? 

During the session, I shared a few personal stories with the group from my many years in senior leadership roles along with my philosophy for dealing with underperformers – “rehabilitate or terminate”. 

To be honest I was expecting the group to discuss their own approaches to identifying skills or knowledge gaps; to providing feedback and support; or even to developing performance improvement plans. 

Instead, one participant raised her hand and asked me why I thought managing underperformance has almost become a taboo topic these days, with all the focus being on vulnerable and authentic leadership … almost avoiding the fact that leaders need to make tough decisions.  

She asked the group whether we had noticed how so many LinkedIn posts these days on ‘what leadership is about’ often omit holding people to account and whether we thought the ‘empathy above all else’ narrative has become so entrenched that it has made the business of accountability all the more difficult. 

Whilst there is no doubt that addressing underperformance can be a delicate task for any leader, there could be several reasons why it has become a taboo topic in some workplaces. One reason could be a desire to promote a positive work culture where everyone feels valued and supported. Another reason could be a fear of having difficult conversations. 

However, it’s important to recognise that addressing underperformance is a critical part of any leader’s role. Ignoring underperformance can lead to a decline in team morale along with a decline in trust and respect for a leader who is afraid to make the tough calls. 

Given that I never officially got to ask the group, “What does leadership mean to you?”, I’ll just leave that question here for you to contemplate in your own time. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, often helping leaders address friction, confusion, and underperformance. 

Get free leadership resources delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign up for our newsletter today to receive regular tips and resources. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to boost your leadership skills.

You might also like

When leaders and their team members appreciate the differences between responsibility and accountability, this results in the most suitable individuals being assigned to projects and which people will take ownership for the overall results.
Empowering a multi-generational workforce is a common leadership development trait – one that will become even more important. How can you successfully lead a multi-generational workforce?
If a team member approaches you wanting a promotion, you need to consider if they're looking for a promotion, or new job entirely – one that may in fact only exist beyond the company walls.
Young businesswoman working from her home office setup

Get free leadership resources delivered straight to your inbox!

Sign up for our newsletter today to receive regular tips and resources. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to boost your leadership skills.