When we moved into our new house at the end of the year, we were thrilled. More space, well maintained and exactly what we hoped we’d find. Within weeks, we realized that the sellers were experts at masking challenges and bit by bit we discovered some unexpected dull on what we thought was all shine.
Lights flickered, power was oddly wired, the new caulk in the shower was covering sludge, and the stink from the bathroom floor drain was overwhelming.
When friends came to see our new house, I was embarrassed to show them the master bath since the smell emanating from the drain was out of control. Seriously, when you went in there, you automatically started to breathe more shallowly and hoped that the stink didn’t cling to your clothing when you left the room.
Prepared to call a plumber and pay big bucks, a friend who grew up with floor drains (they’re rare in America, so I didn’t) told me it happens and not to worry. She suggested buying another floor mat and covering the drain to manage the smell. We did, and it worked.
The problem was that the new mat became slippery from water on the floor and a hazard. Occasionally, we’d flip it over to help it dry out and put it back over the stinky drain as soon as possible. However, it was a bandaid at best.
Frustrated that there was something really wrong, and tired of having a mat in the middle of my bathroom, I made the executive decision to get rid of the mat. Of course, the smell of rotten eggs and sewer gas was intense, but covering it up was never going to solve the actual problem.
When the stink was masked, I was the only one who remembered that the underlying problem was there and it wasn’t about to magically disappear. By taking away the cover, it became a shared problem that we, as a team, were motivated to solve.
Are You A Leader Who Covers Up Stinkiness at Work?
At work, as leaders, we’re often tempted to cover up stink too.
Conflicts on the team, less than perfect work, falling behind schedule and approaches that once produced results now falling flat. They’re all versions of workplace stink.
When I was a VP, the company COO would come to visit our division every few months. Do you think we shared the depth of our challenges? Where things were the most stinky? Not so much. We emphasized our successes and didn’t bring out our weaker team members for the dog and pony show.
The “cover it up and pretend it’s not there” strategy only worked for so long. In the end, our leadership team was out, a new one was put in place, and we were all more than happy to go since the underlying and hidden stinkiness, much like my bathroom floor drain, was overwhelming. Thing is, it had been there for a long time, leadership team after leadership team before us, unable to get rid of it, so they focused on the roses and didn’t linger on the rot.
Great Leaders Do This in Stinky Times
If you’re committed to step up and fix what’s broken instead of covering things up and ignoring underlying issues, here’s the approach that great leaders take because it works.
1) Stop hiding from reality
It’s easy to take an “out of sight out of mind” approach, but it doesn’t solve anything. Letting what’s broken persist isn’t leadership. It isn’t. Leaders are willing to take a close look and acknowledge hard truths.
2) Be honest about challenges
Great leaders don’t use bandaids, but instead, dig deeper into what’s happening. They seek to understand the breadth and depth of issues instead of assuming that new reporting or a team building bowling night will remedy the situation. Great leaders speak candidly about challenges and expect and support others to be candid with them in return.
3) Let others help solve the problem
No matter how high up you are on the org chart, you’re not alone. You are not solely responsible for fixing everything; every individual is accountable to be their best and do their best. Sometimes the best solutions come from the front lines, not the insulated corner offices. Great leaders engage people all levels to solicit ideas and solutions to challenging problems.
4) Take action
Change happens with action, not when you think about taking action or have every intention of taking action. Even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult, it’s up to you to create meaningful change. Change starts when you’re no longer willing to accept the status quo (and that includes the workplace equivalent of floor mats covering up stinky drains).
5) Keep an eye (or nose) out for future flare-ups
When the challenge is remedied, great leaders don’t take it for granted that it’s gone forever. Conflicts re-emerge, clients change their requirements, and the business requires agility, not only best practices. Great leaders don’t linger on past issues but they do keep their nose to the ground so when they need to take action again, they’re ready before a bad smell becomes unbearable stink.
Good news is that my floor drain no longer smells at all. When others were motivated to join me in the quest for a solution, we figured out.
Bottom line is that we don’t have to live with stinky times as a leader or an individual. We don’t have to suffer through or accept that things can never get better. Most of all, hiding what’s not working does not make it disappear.
Whether you’re leading a team or feel stuck in the stinkiness in your career, you can follow these steps and make a meaningful change.
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