Difficult decisions

Rob Hall had a difficult decision to make. On one side was his earlier instruction to the expedition that he was leading – that they need to start descending from the Everest summit, or wherever they would have reached on the mountain, by 2 PM. This mandate was based both on his and others’ experience and expertise in climbing Mt. Everest. On the other hand was his friend and client Doug Hansen, who was climbing Mt. Everest for the second time, and adamant about making it to the Summit this time (he had failed the first time) even though he was well behind the deadline that Rob had set for the team.

Rob initially advised Doug to turn around when he was a few meters from the summit (and well beyond the 2 PM deadline), but Doug refused and said he will continue his trek to the peak with or without Rob’s help.

What would you have done if you were Rob? Put Doug’s well-being ahead of his aspiration/goal?

Now let us look at a different scenario…actually a similar scenario.

You have a non-performer in your team. You know that the other team members are often required to step in for this individual and take care of his workload, because he is not able to deliver as per the agreed deadlines. There are tasks he does well, but at his career level, you expect a lot more from him. You expect him to operate independently, which he often doesn’t. You also know this person has a personal situation and therefore needs this job desperately. You have given him feedback and even spent time coaching him, but that has not helped. You have thought about out-counseling him, but you are reluctant because of his personal situation. What would you do?

While it is easy to theoretically say that we, as managers, are expected to and should out-counsel this individual, but anyone who has ever been involved in such a task knows that it is easier said than done, more so when there is a ‘personal situation’ involved.

On 10th May, 1996 Rob made the wrong decision. His decision, to accompany Doug to the summit and start descending only after 5 PM (3 hours after the actual deadline he had himself set), costed Rob and Doug their lives (in fact 6 other people lost their lives in that expedition because of a storm).

While we may not face such life and death situations, our decisions are also challenging and their consequences also impact lives.

Back to the corporate scenario, while you may believe you are helping this individual by not out-counselling him, your decision will result in:

  • Other team members (performers) feeling demotivated and stretched
  • Low quality deliverables/missed deadlines
  • You, as a manager, feeling stretched, as you need to step in to help and/or cover up
  • The individual himself not feeling good about not being able to perform/deliver

I have witnessed multiple scenarios where professionals, after initially feeling low about being out-counseled from a job, have actually flourished in other roles/teams/organizations.

While decisions in such cases will depend on a lot of other factors that are not covered in this post, the point I am trying to make is that sometimes we need to make those difficult decisions and hard choices. The storm may still have taken Doug Hansen’s life on that fateful day even if he had turned back at 2 PM, but at least Rob would have lived/died knowing that he had made the right decision.

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