How to Quit Kicking the Can Down the Road

Posted 09.26.2011

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria is one of the smartest people I don’t know. His GPS (Global Public Square) show on Sunday afternoon is an oasis of civil and intelligent discussion on world events in a desert of babble and blather.

He opened this week’s show with a commentary on the burgeoning economic crisis in the Eurozone. You can read the full transcript of his remarks on his blog, but here’s the conclusion that really caught my attention and stimulated my thinking:

“Everywhere leaders all seem to assume that if they just keep things steady, something will miraculously happen to solve the problems and jumpstart growth. It won’t. The problems are actually getting worse and by sticking their heads in the sand, leaders are only deepening the inevitable crisis.”

Of course, that dynamic is not limited to the Eurozone. I’ve noticed that the phrase of the moment is “kicking the can down the road.” When you want to ignore a problem, defer it to someone else’s watch or wait for it to magically get better, you kick the can down the road.

It’s a strategy that almost never works. Take a common, everyday example. How many times have you seen a manager with a non-performing or disruptive employee not act to correct the situation in the hope that things would get better on their own? I’ve seen it lots of times and it never gets better.

So, why, as human beings who sometimes happen to be leaders, do we kick the can down the road? More importantly, what can we do to deal with problems instead of avoiding them? Here are some ideas.

  • Identify Your Fears: If you’re avoiding dealing with a problem, you’re likely afraid of something.  Figure out what you’re afraid of and then ask yourself how likely is it that what you’re afraid of will actually happen? Whether it’s likely or not, is that better or worse than what is likely to happen if you don’t act? Getting clear about your fears will likely compel you to act sooner rather than later.
  • Keep It Focused on the Standards: When you take action on the problem,  be clear about the standards for success in the future (or right now). Make sure that there is a common understanding of the standards and then start working to close the gap between the current state and the desired state.
  • Keep It Civil and Smart: When you take on the problem, follow the lead of Fareed Zakaria and keep it civil. To do that, it helps a lot to be clear about how you intend to show up. Be clear about the emotional state you want to create for the other person or the group as a whole. Then, keep it smart. Show up prepared. Know your facts. Keep the end goal in mind.

What’s your take? When and why do leaders kick the can down the road?  What’s your best advice for addressing problems head on?