In any organization, there are main lines of operations and there are distractions. Sometimes the distractions come in the form of “good ideas” thrust upon the team by seniors. Sometimes the distractions come in the form of sub-par performers. And yes, sometimes the distractions are in fact opportunities. The challenge is in knowing when these distractions should be ignored and when they are deserving of our personal attention. I won’t attempt to simplify the criteria for binning situations into distraction and opportunity piles, for such a decision requires specific context, is completely subjective, and is framed by the lens through which the decision maker sees. The most important variable is the leader’s lens.

What happens when we see things one way and our supervisor or subordinate sees the situation slightly differently? I have been on both ends of this difference of opinion. What one person sees as a distraction, another may see as an opportunity (and vice versa). The key is to ensure the team sees the situation similarly after looking at it from a variance of vantage points.

I was recently conversing with a colleague about professionalism and commitment to standards in the workplace. We have all worked in places where subpar performers exist, yet we all deal with them differently. Some push subordinates aside so they do as little damage as possible, while others hold them accountable in hopes of helping them to either grow into contributing members of the team or to give them a reason to leave the team. Personally, I fall 100% into the accountability side of the discussion. For that reason, I was taken aback when my colleague told me that paying attention to an individual who is not meeting the mark was a waste of time, nothing more than a distraction, and akin to “swatting at gnats.” Not having heard that metaphor before and being one who wears insect repellent before going into a “buggy situation”, I had to give that one some thought. Gnats are a distraction, but they are also attracted to certain environments. As far as I can tell, gnats seek out carbon dioxide, rotten fruits, vinegar, and dampness. So if we know what they are attracted to, I would agree that getting rid of the object of their affection is far more effective than swatting them away. So what is it that these subpar performers are attracted to? Organizations that don’t enforce standards; organizations that sanction incompetence.

As we see our team complaining more and more about people who are not contributing to the cause, and in some cases undermining the noteworthy efforts of others, it is important to acknowledge that gnats, and subpar performers, are dangerously distractive. If ignored, these gnats will not only maintain their presence, but they will multiply in their safe haven, blur a leader’s strategic vision, and drive down effectiveness across the organization. Where one sees gnats, another sees the source to which they are attracted. Where one sees a poor performer shoved aside in hopes of mitigating the problems their involvement creates, another sees an organization who says incompetence, laziness, and/or inappropriate behavior is acceptable.

Gnats are not merely distractions, they are indicators of the environment around them. Poor performers can be a distraction, but they also present an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate a commitment to standards enforcement. Confusing a distraction with an opportunity can prove to be the demise of any team. Don’t let it be the demise of yours.

  • How are you dealing with those who are not meeting the standard?
  • Are you making it a priority to minimize distractions?
  • How are you helping your team to distinguish between opportunities and distractions?