Click herI'm writing about this after remembering one of my first days as a new lieutenant at 1 Combat Engineer Regiment. My Commanding Officer announced to the whole Regiment, "Mr. Bandara will be given a lot of rope, hopefully he doesn't hang himself." At the time I didn't know what to make of it. Now I smile to myself when I remember it. My interpretation about what he meant was that I would be getting a great deal of responsibility, hopefully I wouldn't mess it up. Going into that job I knew there were a lot of resources I could pull from to be successful, and it was up to me to either succeed or fail. But that memory got me thinking about a lot of other times I've heard of the "Sink or Swim," adage. I feel the intent of this philosophy was to assess a person's aptitude and resourcefulness, or on the other side, give a problem team member a last chance at redemption. This only works if the resources are available for that person to actually succeed, i.e. a strong team, good mentorship etc. Instead I found that most of the time "Sink or Swim" is a crutch that bosses use when they either can't or would rather not invest time or energy into training.Often when I hear, "Well, you're either going to sink or swim," I really hear, " I really can't properly training you, so don't mess it up, also don't bother me..... Boss, out!" The biggest peeve I have with this method of employing people is that it's used in the absence of a plan to train them. It's a cop out. With that in mind, most of the time it's not due to laziness, but usually due to the leader being ridiculously busy. However, the leader is still the leader and needs to ensure that the members of the team are set up for success, after all, the leader's success is dependent on theirs. What can happen is that there is no plan to train the new member, so the onus is on the rest of the team to pick up the slack. If they do not have time to train the new member, then they probably only have time to quickly save any dropped balls, and quickly develop a resentment for a new member.
So, let's talk about ways the leadership can mitigate the almost guaranteed failure of a non deliberate "sink or swim," scenario:
1) Give the new team member a 'peer mentor' if there isn't someone already there to mentor and help them along. A peer mentor, in this specific context, would be another member of the team with the task of helping the new person out. The rest of the team, including the leader may have to pick up some extra tasks to allow the mentor to help the new person out.
2) Delegate the responsibility of helping and training the new member to the entire team. This way the scheduling of training and mentorship can be more flexible and less taxing on any one individual. The individual mentorship tasks and times dedicated by each member should be clearly delineated. This way, the leader can mitigate friction through coordination, and personality fit. This will also see a potential shift in work loads, but less so for option 1, as it would be for a much shorter duration.
3) The leader can delegate some of their lower risk responsibilities so that they can actually take some time to train and mentor the new member. This has a two fold benefit, allowing another team member to temporarily accept more responsibility and experience, and for the leader to actually be there in the crucial early period.
I just want to reiterate: there is a definitely a time and place for "sink or swim," when it is deliberately thought out to achieve a desired effect. But if it is used due to convenience or lack of any form of deliberate action, the leadership owe it to the team and the member to ensure that the mechanisms are established to set that member and team up for success. Further, how many good employees/ operators/ team members were let go, or left because they sank, often for no real fault of their own? How many sink or swim casualties can an organization take?
Biren Bandara, BSc, CD
Leader School Inc
www.leaderschool.cae to edit.