Circumstance vs. Character.

Circumstance vs. Character.

In coaching, consulting and reviewing the reports from our on-site trainers, human capital challenges are at the top of the list of items we’re hired to fix. As I’ve done with most systems, challenges and opportunities in business, I help my clients and trainers develop and deploy “litmus tests,” or quick “yes/no” tools to help guide next steps.

Here’s one you might put to good use when your next employee challenge or frustration arrives. Ask if this is an issue of character or circumstance. 

Our data indicate: underperforming employees are rarely an issue of character. These situations are almost always an issue of circumstance.

For example, we failed to place the employee in the proper role. The training program was inadequate. Oversight and motivational systems were not being deployed consistently. Communication was unclear. We did not support the employee’s desire to learn new things, master his own environment and contribute to a higher sense of purpose.

And yet, I see employees in our clients offices being disciplined or terminated because of circumstance. This is a horrible mistake. Do not let good people go if you haven’t done your job in placing them in the best-fit position, training, managing and motivating them and then getting out of their way so they can help you achieve your vision and mission. 

In the rare situations where an employee has demonstrated a problem with character, in a twist of irony, many practice owners drag their feet in firing the employee.

Listen. There are no quick fixes for issues of character. There is only one solution for an employee who is dishonest, has a poor work ethic, refuses to be a team player and sabotages new projects in the office: swift termination.

And yet, too many business owners fail to address this problem because the employee has been with the team for a long time, performs their job, at least from time to time, sufficiently, etc.

Isn’t that interesting? The fact that most small business owners will tolerate a crisis of character but not one of circumstance? Why?

For starters, it’s easier to blame the other person for poor performance than it is to look in the mirror and admit that your systems for hiring, training, management, motivation and culture all stink like yesterday’s garbage.

Our egos don’t get damaged when we point our fingers at someone else. But, like my mother used to say, “when you point your finger at someone else, there are three more pointed back at you.” 

This advice and litmus test, if you take a moment to unpack and consider them, make perfect sense in the larger picture of running a successful business. Because if you get this right, you’ll behave in the opposite fashion of every other competitor in your industry.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.