Motivate September 2017

Leaders: Why Hopelessness Can Be Good for Business

Written By: Heather Parbst

You read that right — I’m recommending hopelessness. I don’t want you to feel hopeless about everything, of course. But, I want you to feel hopeless about the initiatives, employees, projects, vendors, and even businesses that are sucking up your energy and/or the energy of your team. Many of us struggle with endings, and this isn’t limited to our personal lives; it permeates the business world as well.

We all have probably known the small, family-owned business where the relative was hired onto the team only to wreak havoc, drain profit and cause drama. For the good of the business, he or she needs to go, but the owner can’t make it happen. I knew a business owner who allowed a negative employee to stay on the team for many years even though he dragged morale down more and more each year. Another example are the people and businesses that push outdated products or services because they aren’t willing to acknowledge that the time for their “thing” has passed.

Being too slow to end something that needs to be ended can be exceptionally costly for a leader and for a business. A recent article published in the Harvard Business Review titled “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart” stated that decisiveness is one of the four traits that set truly great CEOs apart from the rest.

What’s more, of the CEOs who received low marks for decisiveness, only 6 percent were labeled as deciding too quickly. The majority (94 percent) scored low because they decided too late. Another study completed by Mark Murphy and the team at Leadership IQ looked at CEOs who were fired. They found that 31 percent were fired for poor change management, 23 percent for denying reality and 27 percent for tolerating low performers.

Mismanaging change, denying reality, and tolerating low performers can all be a result of failure to execute needed endings or failure to quit situations that should be quit. Not firing an employee who is a bad fit holds back the organization and the employee from moving on to something better. Propping up a product line or outdated service that has outlived its market deprives the business and customers from what comes next.

Endings are often avoided because they are painful! But, avoiding endings prevents creativity, innovation and risk-taking. Endings that are executed proactively, strategically, and on time, however, are the difference between what Dr. Henry Cloud, author of “Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward,” refers to as “pain with a purpose and pain for no good reason.”

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with hopelessness. Hope, when we shouldn’t have it, is often what prevents us from executing on an ending. We’ve all heard the phrase, “hope isn’t a strategy.” If your hope for improvement in a situation is preventing you from seeing the reality staring you in the face, then you need to get hopeless.

To determine if it’s time to give up hope and make some changes, you will want to look at the situation through the lenses of the past, present and future. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. -Other than the fact that you really want this thing to work out, is there a reason to believe that tomorrow will be different from today?
  2. -How have things been to date?
  3. -How has performance been?
  4. -What is happening right now? Is there anything happening that will make things different?
  5. -What evidence do you have for being hopeful that things are going to change?
  6. -Are you willing to sign up for more of the same?
  7. -Do you want to be dealing with the same frustration or problem in six months or a year?
  8. -Do you want to be having the same conversations in six months or a year?
  9. -Is the situation sustainable?

If you are dealing with a person, employee, vendor, etc., it’s worth mentioning that a verbal commitment of change does not make someone who is simply not suited for a job suddenly suited.

There are also situations where you will want to hold on to hope. If it involves people, are they making solid efforts at change? Is there a monitoring system of some kind in place to ensure that change is actually happening? Are they motivated to change and do they possess the character to make it happen? Do they admit a need for change? These all may warrant holding on to hope a little longer. This doesn’t mean you need to tolerate poor performance or behavior indefinitely. But, you may not want to completely end the situation just yet, the caveat being that if the behavior is really harmful, then you don’t want to tolerate it at all.

You also don’t want to quit if you are pursuing something that you really want and are making progress but are also having to put in a ton of work. Ask any runner and they will tell you that there will be times when making progress is really uncomfortable and even painful, but you are still moving forward. Stopping too soon will just result in a loss of time, energy and effort.

I particularly believe that for self-made leaders or business owners who are used to persisting despite all odds, there is sometimes a need to learn to recognize when persistence or commitment has become toxic. It is worth it for leaders to examine their thoughts around endings and look for areas where their false hopes may be holding them back, along with those they lead.


HEATHER PARBST is a business consultant and founder of Clarity3 Consulting, a company helping organizations solve their operations, culture and leadership challenges. Heather uses her past experience owning, leading, growing, and selling a technology company along with a background in psychology to help her clients execute on their objectives, move toward organizational excellence and increase their impact.

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