When Did You Last Give Someone a Chance?

I am a Hypocrite. Are You?

Give someone a chanceIn today’s hyper-competitive, dog-eat-dog world, there is often a thought that you must only have the best people on your team, and if you can’t, then you must do it yourself. Don’t give someone a chance. Well, I have news for you: On average, people are, well, average.

On average, people are average

In any organization you will have high performers and weak performers, but typically the vast majority will be normal people with normal levels of productivity and talents. You might even be one yourself!

What’s interesting, though, is that someone might be a low performer in one situation or with one attribute, but be a high performer in other areas or situations. And so one of the jobs of a good leader is to attempt to build the best team possible, and that entails not necessarily the best people, but rather the best people in their best roles.

It also means delegating effectively, and recognizing that the final outcome might not be exactly as you want or expect. That’s also called empowering your team members to make their own decisions within the guidelines you set. Then give them the tools they need, get out of their way, and be available to support them when they run into difficulty.

One the challenges, though, is that sometimes you don’t necessarily know what someone is good at, particularly if you’ve just started working together.

I can’t help but think of all those 1980s cartoon villains whose henchmen are just a tad bit incompetent…

And so today I would like to relay three specific stories to encourage you to give someone a chance. Perhaps someone you underestimated. Perhaps someone you might be unnecessarily prejudiced towards. Not a “cool kid”. Not on the dean’s list. Someone too old. Someone too young. Or maybe just an unknown.

And just to be clear, I am not proposing putting someone in a position that is way beyond their specific skill level, but rather taking a calculated risk to give someone an opportunity in an area where failure to be absolutely 100% perfect isn’t really a big deal.

The Serving Cycle

A few years ago, I was setting up a rather large team of several dozen volunteers. I had divided up the tasks into areas and formed sub-teams. We recruited volunteers who then more-or-less self-selected the specific areas they wanted to help out with.

Side note: When you give an employee a task he doesn’t like, he may stay or leave, depending on how much he likes the rest of the work and his financial position. But when you give a volunteer a task he doesn’t like, there is absolutely nothing keeping him there except for his desire to see the team’s mission succeed. These are very different motivators to think about!

This particular project was completely new to us. Nobody on the team had ever done this kind of work before. We reached out to other groups in the community to learn what we could, but we were basically starting from scratch.

One of the medium-priority tasks involved coordinating and maintaining a list of on-call volunteer availability. I was struggling to figure out who would do this role since it was a tedious and not very glamorous task, but it still needed doing. It also happened to be something I’m good at myself. But my “top” volunteers and I were already fully consumed with other higher priority tasks.

However, there was another lady on the team who, to be completely honest, seemed a little neglected and under-appreciated. She was getting up there in age and had some mobility issues. She didn’t appear to have many friends, and didn’t seem to be “with it” with technology.

Don’t Judge A Book…

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

These are all terrible assumptions to make about someone I didn’t really know at all. (Don’t tell me with a straight face that you’ve never judged a book by its cover, either.) But for some reason, I felt the urge to give her a chance. So I sent her an email, outlined the task, and asked if she wanted to own it. Then I crossed my fingers.

Wow, was I surprised!

She reacted with absolute enthusiasm and jumped all over the opportunity. This simple act of treating her with respect, giving her ownership, and providing her with responsibility was received with great appreciation. And she most certainly did not disappoint. She carried out her duties with dedication, commitment and attention to detail until that phase of the project had run its course. She then moved on to other areas of more responsibility on the team until the project came to a close.

Did she do it exactly how I would have? Of course not. But she still did a terrific job. And by giving her a chance, I ended up doing way more than just assigning a task. I showed her that she was worth it, and appreciated, and loved. I never would have expected that reaction. By giving her the opportunity to serve others, I was unknowingly serving her. In other words, by empowering others, I myself was empowered and encouraged.

And that is one very important way that leaders learn and grow through their experiences.

Perfection is the Enemy of Good

I work in CubicleLand. It is a magical place with a perfectly controlled temperature, the gentle tick-tick-tap of plastic buttons, and softly padded walls that speak.

One day while I was working away, minding my own business, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation emanating from the walls. It is a conversation that I will never forget.

Ok, so I actually forgot most of it.

But I will always remember the important part.

Guy: Complaining about having to delegate a task to an inferior employee. (Ironically, many people in the office view the guy complaining as being the poor performer, but that is a whole other story…)

Gal: Trying to appease guy and help him work through the situation. “You have to embrace the good-enough.”

Embrace the good-enough

Not everybody is a perfectionist. And even many who think they are, unknowingly suck at it. But some don’t. Either way, there will be times when you have to delegate but you’re pretty sure you could do a better job yourself. You just don’t have the time. (Kind of like that first story up above…)

But by letting go of the perfect and allowing the good-enough to bubble up in its place, you provide a new opportunity for someone. Perhaps that person will learn something new. Or you might be surprised by the outcome. Or you might learn something yourself. (Again, just like that first story.)

In doing, so however, it is important to set clear boundaries and a safe area for the person to proceed. Give him or her the tools and the rules, the encouragement and the support. And then let them come up with the best solution they can. Allow them to fail gracefully or in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the overall project. Failure is sometimes the best teacher, especially if done appropriately.

Slip and Fail

Recognize and Avoid Catastrophic Failure

On the other hand, failure can be catastrophic. You need to be diligent in ensuring the appropriate environment so that any failure is mitigated, protected, and can be handled effectively. There is an entire field devoted to risk management. Maybe I’ll write a post on that someday. Let me know what you think.

Another individual I volunteered with more recently told me of a teenager he knows. This kid had a G1 driver’s licence.  He was allowed to drive as long as there was always an experienced driver in the front passenger seat. Otherwise, he was prohibited from driving.

Well, he took his parents’ car for a drive without an experienced driver. Oops.

And then crashed. Oops.

And knocked out power to the whole community. Oops.

Including a major shopping center. Oops.

And got sued by the merchants who lost a lot of business during the outage. Uh…..

I can’t recall the details of the ending, but it wasn’t good. Anytime you drive illegally, crash, and cause all sorts of financial pain to all sorts of people, it’s bound to come back and bite you.

I obviously have no idea why this guy took the car. Or what kind of instructions or guidelines his parents had with him. But the point is that this is a bad way to fail. There are many ways you can fail. But unless you are given a safe environment to learn, you might cross the line and fail spectacularly.

So please, absolutely give someone a chance. Take a risk. But make sure that the consequences are manageable. Or at least that someone experienced is riding along with them.

Pencil with ShadowYour Turn Now!

Has anyone ever given you a chance? How did it turn out? When did you last give someone else a chance? What did it look like and how did you feel?

I am a Hypocrite. Are You?


  1. In my current role at work, my boss took a huge chance on me. The line of work is outside my comfort zone but my boss figured, that I was hungry and driven and that he could try to mold and shape me. It’s worked out well so far and hopefully it will lead to other opportunities down the line 🙂

    • Chris Urbaniak says:

      That’s awesome. And I’m sure because of that experience, you will do the same for the others in the future.

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