May 2009

Shannon Wells

Better Business | by Neil Ducoff


Does Your Business Suffer from Intolerable Toleration?

When a business owner is continually frustrated with their service providers’ dismal retail sales performance, the problem may be because only a handful of service providers follow the system.

Asking what the business owner has done to turn the situation around, gets this response: “I’ve talked to these people, addressed it in daily huddles and weekly meetings; even set goals, used scoreboards, and threatened to lower pay. Nothing changes.”

You can probably insert a similar story of your own and no doubt have direct reports from people who are stuck in the “I’ve done everything, but nothing changes” quagmire. Think about behavior or attitude issues, chronic lateness, poor follow-through or inconsistent performance. How about all that “they don’t follow simple procedures” stuff that drives you crazy?

This boils down to a leader’s “acceptance” of sub-par performance. Using the word acceptance is deliberate because it most accurately defines the problem.

Let’s go back to the “I-can’t-get-them-to-sell” issue. When a leader says, “I’ve tried everything, and nothing works,” what they are really saying is, “I choose not to venture beyond my comfort zone to address the problem and move the company forward.”

Suggesting this to the owner mentioned earlier brought this immediate response: “So you’re telling me to fire them if they don’t perform.”

This knee-jerk response actually reveals what’s preventing this leader from successfully navigating through a behavioral-performance problem. Fear of confrontation is preventing action and, therefore, allowing sub-par performance to continue.

Wouldn’t it be great if the word “confrontation” were banned from business and leadership thinking and replaced with “opportunities for growth?” Then we would hear a leader saying, “I hate opportunities for growth.”

It’s interesting how quickly the leadership pendulum can swing from what could be called “intolerable toleration” to the opposite extreme of firing the offenders without exploring all of the possibilities that exist in between. Every leader needs to recognize where their personal intolerable toleration line is drawn, in order to prevent inaction on opportunities for growth. (See how quickly the energy shifts to positive by not using the negative term “confrontation?”)

Every behavior issue and performance problem is a call for leaders to engage in coaching and innovative collaboration. Yes, the process may become heated and uncomfortable, but the alternative — not to engage — is intolerable toleration of the completely unacceptable. Simply put, it’s a failure to lead. Only when all reasonable opportunities for growth fail to yield positive results is it time to give employees the opportunity to work elsewhere. No compromise.

Neil Ducoff is the founder and CEO of Strategies, a business training and coaching company specializing in the salon and spa industry. He’s author of Fast Forward, and a new book, No-Compromise Leadership, published by DC Press and is available at For more information go to You can email Neil at