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Too Patient or Not Patient Enough? How Leaders Strike a Balance

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We’ve all been told that “patience is a virtue.” Our parents admonished us when we incessantly asked, “Are we there yet?” Our teachers scolded us when we requested our grades back mere minutes after we finished the test. And even though we have now (hopefully) aged out of our restless childhoods, it is still just as important that leaders practice patience in business.

Businesses are under immense pressure to produce results at break-neck speed in today’s fast-paced world. However, more often than not, the best, most sustainable results take time to achieve. What’s more, business results require the efforts of fallible, imperfect humans — people will miscommunicate, get sick and disagree. Month-long projects stretch into years, and rockstar employees fall behind. Patience is a critical yet undervalued element of great leadership — but how do leaders know when to be patient and when their patience has become inaction to resolve a long-term issue?

Related: Why Patience And Kindness Need To Be At The Center Of How You Run Your Business

Monitoring our returns

In our business, we spend millions of dollars a month and we have precise guidelines for the amount and speed at which we expect to see returns on our investments (ROIs). We closely monitor ROIs and know how to recalibrate when our returns are lower or slower than expected. However, these fine-tuned metrics become much more nebulous when investing in human capital.

We invest in our employees with the expectation that they will return that investment with tangible business results. For example, if we hire a team of developers at a specific yearly rate and they help our company make five times that rate within a year, we know we’ve made a solid investment. But what if that year turns into two or three years?

Patience in business does not mean we let everything slide, twiddling our thumbs as we invest more and more into never-ending projects. Rather, it means we monitor our investments closely, knowing when patience is required and when it is time to step in and recalibrate our approach.

Related: Patience Is the Secret to Boosting Your Profits

Balancing the scale

Movies have been made about impatient leaders who terrorize their employees with impossible expectations. However, leading with too much patience, though not as obviously harmful as too little, can hurt everyone in the end. Patience can quickly morph into avoidance or inaction; employees may lose faith in or take advantage of their leader, and business growth will stall. We must balance extending patience to our employees while also holding them accountable. We don’t want to become Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but we don’t want to be Steve Carrell in The Office, either.

In my role, I aim to lead with a growth mindset and I have faith that most people can develop into productive team members. But when employees are not meeting expectations, have a toxic attitude or their behavior negatively affects team morale, it’s a pretty easy call to put them on a performance plan. If they don’t improve, investing their resources in a new, more positive employee is often the next step.

On the other hand, some underperforming employees are a great fit for our culture and want to improve. When this happens, we can extend a greater degree of patience. In the past, I offered a promising but underperforming employee two options: leave today and accept six weeks’ severance or work to improve, but if they showed no improvement in a timely manner, they would only receive two weeks’ severance. They decided to stay and have become one of our highest-performing employees.

Remember, “It’s not what you preach; it’s what you tolerate.” We cannot tolerate a toxic or underperforming employee just to appear patient — not only will it hurt the business, but it could also hurt other employees. But we shouldn’t be so quick to fire that our employees live in fear. Leaders must balance how much patience they offer to create a supportive, productive and safe workplace.

Related: How to Harness the Power of Patience to be a Better Leader

What to consider

When deciding how much or how little patience to extend to a struggling employee, there are three questions to ask:

  1. Is the person committed to improving?
  2. Does their team have confidence in their ability to grow and succeed?
  3. Based on the employee’s progress and current attitude, does the company have sufficient time and resources to allow this person to improve at their current pace?

This last point is a tricky one. I hope all employees will thrive and create fair value for the company. Since I have a growth mindset, I believe people can learn and improve. However, we need to weigh how much time it will take an employee to improve against how much it will take to replace them. We can generally hire and train a new employee to be productive in three to six months. So, if we’re not certain an underperforming employee can improve in that time, should we replace them or should we be patient? The right answer isn’t always immediately clear.

Take the time to consider each employee’s unique situation before making a decision. Companies that hire and fire fast may lose employee trust and create a negative atmosphere. Give employees the chance to step up to the plate before making the drastic choice to fire them — nobody wants to work in an office where they are always afraid of the chopping block. At the same time, no one wants to work with co-workers who don’t do their fair share and drag down the company’s performance.

Reap the rewards of patience

Patience can make or break a company. With too little patience, the workplace may become toxic, leading to employee burnout and high turnover rates. With too much patience, growth will stall, projects will get delayed and businesses will miss out on the growth that allows employees to see increases in compensation and responsibility.

Patience is an art, not a science. There is no magic formula to tell you whether a project is worth waiting for or an employee worth keeping. Aristotle said, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” To taste the fruit, we must find the right balance of patience to build a company that allows employees to thrive, customers to be happy and shareholders to prosper.


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