Mind What You Tolerate: 4 Ways to Avoid Workaround Behaviors

“When I came off the boat I was very proud of the thick calluses which had developed on my feet. But now, I am struggling to get into my favourite high heels which is a shame…” – Pamela Stephenson

In humans, a callus is formed when repeated irritation causes our bodies to create a hardened outer layer of tissue. A callus doesn’t eliminate the cause; rather, it protects from further harm and allows us to continue the activity from which it originated in the first place. The downside of a callus is that it can interfere with flexibility, reduce sensation, and mask an underlying injury. Although we typically think of calluses on our hands and feet, they form anywhere there’s a repetitive irritation.

It turns out, like humans, organizations develop calluses for the same general reason: to avoid or circumvent pain points. Organizational callus forms when you operate around or despite certain people, deny reality, tolerate unwieldy processes, or expend excessive resources to compensate for clients or suppliers with significant shortcomings or unreasonable demands.

Workaround organizational calluses are not scalable. They are costly to maintain, exhausting for your team, and often cause top performers to quit. Worst of all, the negative effects stealthily increase over time–starting with a simple, seemingly appropriate workaround, then building into something that “all of a sudden” becomes debilitating and growth-preventing.

There are four common causes of organizational calluses: people, processes, customers, and suppliers. Let’s take a closer look at each and discuss how you can prevent them.

People

The most important question in business is and will forever be “Who?”

Accordingly, pay particular attention to underperformers, cultural misfits, and toxic high performers. Each of these employee archetypes predictably fuels the formation of a workaround organizational callus. When leaders tolerate the people in these categories, they normalize the behaviors and virtually guarantee increasing organizational inefficiencies over time.

Here’s how to avoid people-related organizational calluses:

  • Implement rigorous Right People, Right Seats (RPRS) standards for both performance and culture fit and assess every employee quarterly.
  • Build a Culture of Accountability.
  • Mind what you do and what you tolerate as a leader. Leading by example includes not just your own behavior, but also what you tolerate in others.

Processes

The most significant source of messy, inefficient processes is a lack of accountability. Each core process in your firm should have a single point of accountability. Just like your bedroom closet, processes become less orderly over time necessitating oversight for smooth operation, maintenance, and enhancement. Common core processes include customer acquisition, service delivery, manufacturing, billing and collections, and talent acquisition.

Single-point accountability can be challenging for leaders, as most core processes run across organizational departments—sales, operations, customer service, human resources, and accounting to name a few—rather than within them. That said, it is crucial to create crystal clear accountability for the cross-functional processes at the heart of your operation in addition to the functional departments within it.

Here’s how to prevent process-related organizational calluses:

  • Create clear single-point accountability for each of your firm’s core processes.
  • Build the imperative for change into your culture. When you normalize disrupting the status quo, your firm is far less likely to suffer from messy, outdated processes.
  • Regularly assess and update your core processes. I recommend every 12–18 months, depending on the growth rate of your business.

Customers

Beware of customers with unreasonable demands, those who are slow to pay you, and those who treat your staff poorly. These characters tend to create organizational calluses as you and your staff compensate for their shortcomings. Further, if you do the math, you’ll likely realize you’ve been accommodating your least profitable customers, which is hardly the path to sustainable, profitable growth.

Years ago, one of my coaching clients in the contracting space had a callus in the form of a “best” customer who owed them more than USD $4 million and was over 6 months in arrears! Even worse, senior leadership continued to accommodate this customer despite their unwillingness to meet their financial commitments.

Cash flow, of course, is critical so my client spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to “borrow from Peter to pay Paul” as their largest customer strung them along with millions in receivables. Predictably, their issue with this client started small and grew over time. As it did, they established a callus of distracting and non-productive financial maneuvering to compensate.

Avoid customer-related organizational calluses by:

  • Identifying and focusing on your core customer: people who value your products or services and are willing to pay a fair price for them.
  • Holding your customers accountable to treat your people well.
  • Periodically evaluating your customers and terminating or renegotiating low profit, high hassle relationships.

Suppliers

Each firm that names you as a customer should contribute to the value and efficiency of your operation. If they don’t, find replacements who will.

I once coached two partners running a major dress manufacturer. Design, sales, and distribution were handled out of their New York offices and manufacturing was completed via contract in China.

At the time, their manufacturer was struggling with quality control. To compensate, my client hired a firm in China to spot-check dresses in the factory prior to shipping. Because a significant number of dresses were still shipped with quality problems, they established another quality check and repair facility in New York. In addition to the expensive, work-intensive quality checks, their retail store clients who sold the dresses to the public lost confidence in the brand’s ability to deliver on its promises. Despite these issues and the massive organizational callus they built in response, the two partners continually refused to consider adding another factory to their manufacturing stable.

Be mindful of this cautionary tale and monitor your suppliers, contractors, and vendors for the following callus-inducing symptoms: low quality, infrequent and/or opaque communications, unreasonable demands, and a general lack of “good partner” behaviors.

To stop supplier-related organizational calluses:

  • Create and document expected standards of behavior and performance for each of your major vendors.
  • Establish both normal and exception-based communication rhythms and reporting.
  • Create relationships with potential backup and secondary suppliers. This “virtual bench” will empower you to hold high expectations of your suppliers and to replace them quickly if it’s warranted.

Conclusion

Any minor irritation in your firm has the potential to induce costly, growth-slowing organizational callus. Leaders can prevent this by tuning into the symptoms, establishing clear behavioral norms, and acting aggressively to remedy exceptions.

Here’s the common denominator: Mind what you tolerate as a leader and adopt a bias to act. This posture sends a clear message to your employees, to your customers, and to your suppliers, while simultaneously helping you attract and retain top tier talent (who typically have a low tolerance for passive leadership).

What callus-inducing conditions are you tolerating in your firm? An honest answer followed by focused action could be one of the most valuable things you do for your firm this year.

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Coaching Opportunity

I have a rare, available slot in my coaching portfolio.

I’m looking for an established, aggressive CEO running a high growth firm with USD $25–400 million in revenue. Already successful, they’re obsessed with continuing to scale, but cannot PREDICTABLY generate the financial or quality-of-life results they want through the performance of the business.

Who do you know who should know me?

With Gratitude – Mark

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