How do leaders enable a sloppy result?

Painted Signs

While walking on Boylston Street near Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay the other day, I noticed a streak of black paint on the back side of parking signs attached to the light post; then I noticed that this happened on several other light posts as well. I assume that when someone repainted the post of a streetlight, presumably for maintenance, their effort left paint on the backside of the signs. My reaction was to judge the work sloppy, and to assume that someone else, especially a visitor, on seeing the shoddy work, would think Boston as less than a first-class city. (All this from a streak of paint!)

Who knows what circumstances led to the streaky signs. The painter had a bad day. It was windy. The job had to be rushed. No one told the painter the standards for the work. The painter only had a roller to work with. There was no one to hold the ladder. A person responsible for prepping the signs (masking the back) didn’t show up that day. A person assigned to cleaning up after the job missed the light posts. And so on.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of the leadership involved in getting the work done. What are some of the things a leader might have said or thought in preparing for or following up the job? What difference might their leadership have made on the outcome?

  1. “I don’t have any control over the workers on this job.”
  2. “It’s in a part of town where nobody cares about the signs.”
  3. “I didn’t want to do this project in the first place. Let’s just get it done as quick as possible!”
  4. “If we get enough complaints we’ll fix it” or “It’s not worth the effort to fix it.”
  5. “I’ll put the SOB who did this on probation. They all know what the standards are!”
  6. “We did the best we could. Only three posts out of fifty were painted this way. That’s good enough, don’t you think?”
  7. “Why are we painting the posts? What’s going on? What larger program is this part of? Who in City Hall is sponsoring it? Why?”
  8. “What department is going to do this work? What have the teams said in regards to getting it done right? What have we heard about the quality of their work in the past? What can we do to make it better for them?”
  9. “We’ve also had complaints about the stickers/posters stuck on the light posts and the back of the signs. Can we get some more funding and resources to do something about removing/covering those while we’re painting, since we’ll have the equipment out?”
  10. “I’ve noticed in London that their light posts are pristine. What would you think about finding out how they manage that? Can we take a trip over there to do the research?”

These statements/questions are examples of leaders with different attitudes, ranging from defeat/low care to optimism/high engagement. The first six might have contributed to the result I saw. The remaining four might have helped produce a different result – no streaks – if not right away, then in the long-run.

There are parallel examples for what leaders might do or say for every project, every change. Where do you fit in that spectrum? How has your thinking, your approach, affected the outcome of your projects, your changes? Negatively? Positively?

What difference would it make to the way you manage your projects, or lead that changes for which you are responsible, or feel about your professional life in general, if you shifted to be more positive? Let’s talk.