Slip-Resistant Thinking

By Zach Mural

In the last few years, I have frequently had uncomfortable conversations about performance and job status with individuals who had previously been thought of as stellar employees. Unfortunately, in each instance, a single incident made these conversations necessary and at times impossible for my team to retain the individual. In reflecting on each situation, I recognize there are several key steps that—when followed—yield decisions that are both fair to the employee and also in the best interest of the organization.


If you take nothing else from this column, please remember that, except for life/well-being-threatening situations, you should always take the time to STOP and think before acting when a situation arises in a youth program. In each of those situations where we had to part ways with an employee, I am convinced that if the team had simply taken 10 minutes to really think about the conflict, the outcome would have been wildly different.

To illustrate this point, imagine a relatively common scenario in youth-serving programs in which a child with a known food allergy is mistakenly provided a food that contains the allergen. And further imagine that the child does not have a severe reaction that requires an Epi-Pen or other life-saving treatment, but instead develops an uncomfortable rash and hives.

In this situation, there are many reasons why the food may have been provided. It could be that the allergy information wasn’t shared with everyone. It could be that the staff member was not aware that the food contained the allergen. Or, it could have been a situation where, in the hustle and general rush from one activity to the next, the information just slipped through the cracks.

In each of these scenarios, how the staff member responds ultimately impacts how he or she is disciplined, retrained, or released. In the example above, if the staff member wasn’t made aware of the allergy, then it would hardly be fair to be held accountable. That said, if the staff member fails to respond appropriately (get the child the proper treatment and notify a supervisor and/or parents in a timely manner), then that employment can be in jeopardy.

Listen And Learn
Along with taking the time to stop and think, it’s almost always a good idea before acting to listen and learn about what occurred. Even if you witnessed everything that took place, other individuals who were involved will likely have different perspectives. It is important to remember that listening for information is not the same as listening to respond. If you really want all of the information needed to make a good decision, make the effort to fully attend to and think about what you hear before moving forward.

So, in the allergy example, it would be important for the staff (and/or supervisor) to take the time to ask and listen to those individuals present. As a general rule, it’s best to ask individuals to recount what occurred in their own words, without asking pointed or directed questions. This open approach avoids influencing what you hear by “leading” the conversation. Ask all staff members who were present to describe what happened and what role they may have played in the events and response.

I firmly believe that when consequential decisions need to be made, I never want to make them alone. Just as it is important to obtain multiple statements and perspectives, it is also important to explore all options available to respond. Of course, this should be done professionally, and confidential information needs to be protected. That said, unless there is a crystal-clear policy that says if “X” then “Y,” having more than one person involved in the decision-making process is in everyone’s best interest.

In returning to the allergy example, retraining, having documented conversation or discipline, or separating may all be on the table. Having an honest conversation, looking at past performance and incidents, and considering precedent collectively help ensure that the decision reached is appropriate.

Then Act
Amazingly, acting is where many supervisors fall short. Time and time again, I have seen situations where something happens, there is an investigation and discussion about how to address the issue, and then nothing is done. Responding in a prompt and professional manner is not optional. If a tough conversation is needed, then have it. If retraining is needed, then it should happen immediately. And, if the decision is that someone should no longer remain in the job, then you owe it to the employee and the organization to part ways immediately. Few things put organizations (and at times, a supervisor’s own job status) at risk like failing to act.

Solid Footing
Finally, if an organization doesn’t already have solid policies and procedures in place to address a range of situations, now is the time to get to work. In times of crisis, instinct is not always our best friend, so having clearly written policies is extremely helpful. If you’re not in a role to create policy, then have a conversation with someone who can. By proactively planning and following the steps I outlined, you should be firmly rooted when an unexpected situation does arise.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit