Management Malpractice


Let’s imagine the following scene… You are sitting in the exam room with your feet dangling off the end of the sanitary-paper-covered couch admiring the jar of tongue depressors when in walks the doctor…

“How are you today Scott?”

“Doing well Doc, just a little pain in my stomach, I’m thinking it might be indigestion or maybe heartburn… I have been…”

“Hold on!” exclaims the Doctor. “You say your stomach hurts?”

“Yep”, I reply, “Every night, right after dinner I get…”

“ULCER!” shouts the Doctor. “We gotta treat that right away!”.

“Wha? I mean why do you um…how could you know? , I stammer quite shocked. My stomach now hurts more than it did when I came in.

“Well last time I had a patient come in with a stomach ache it turned out to be an ulcer, I treated it and he got better. Remember, I have a lot of experience with these things, plus I went to medical school so let me tell you what you need to do…”, the Doctor then begins prescribing a long list of dietary changes, medications, and treatments based on this rather abrupt diagnosis.

“Um… thank you?” I mumble now completely off-balance, but mostly angry as I leave the room. Why did I bother coming to see this guy? He clearly didn’t even try to understand what was going on with me? How could he possibly try diagnosing my condition without even asking me any questions or doing any tests?

He is the Doctor though so I guess I better do what he says even though I don’t think that’s the issue…or maybe I’ll just ignore him and go get some Tums. I definitely won’t trust this guy with my health in the future.

Sure, sounds ridiculous but leaders behave like this all the time. In our efforts to appear competent, keep things moving and control the situation we jump to a prescription while spending very little time on the diagnosis. As a result, we may do more harm than good.

  • We minimize the person and the problem
  • We discourage learning and stifle creativity
  • We undermine trust and credibility
  • We set up passive aggressive behavior
  • We create dependent people
  • We generate new problems with a bad solution

A competent doctor takes the time to understand and asks probing questions, gathers additional opinions or performs tests to reveal new information and form a more accurate diagnosis.

She trusts that you know your body better than she does and allows you to explain what is happening from your perspective and how it is affecting your health. She compliments you for taking charge of your health and seeks to form a partnership and develop a treatment plan that will address the source of the problem as well as the symptoms.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” ~ Albert Einstein

Leaders are organizational health practitioners.

Organizations are living organisms. We can translate any problem our team brings us into an opportunity to serve the entire body. Look for ways to address the obvious symptoms and search for clues that may reveal underlying problems we can eradicate before they become a serious organizational health risk.

  • Be curious
  • Take time to hear the whole story without interrupting
  • Listen for clues that invite further exploration
  • Ask open-ended questions that lead to shared discovery
  • Bring in others who might add a fresh perspective
  • Go deep to find the source of the problem
  • Challenge the hypothesis
  • Define a plan to address the problem
  • Establish future checkpoints to gauge progress
  • Adapt plan as needed

All of this sounds like common sense but I challenge you to monitor yourself and see how easy it is to jump to the prescription rather than do the work to really understand the problem. Over the years these half-baked solutions add up to what I like to call the “Great Wall of Band-Aids”.

Some organizations literally have so many band-aids in place they have to create more band-aids to fix the band-aids. The organization eventually ends up with most of its resources dedicated to managing these half-baked solutions.

The best leaders know that a little more time spent up front working with creative and talented people who really understand the process will yield a more accurate, innovative and elegant solution.

Caveat – yes there are times when it’s an ER situation and you have to jump in, take charge and keep the patient alive before you can figure out what caused the emergency. Fully understandable and completely appropriate. Just don’t get so caught up in the adrenaline rush that you treat every head cold like a head trauma.

In the words of Dr. House…“It’s never Lupus”.


  1. Love this! “Check for understanding” is the best professional advice I have ever received. I believe EVERY issue has a better chance of being solved when we actively hear and listen to all sides of the story. You hit the nail on the head, though, we have to adapt if what we hear is not what we expected. That’s leadership.

    Incidentally, I just changed family physicians because he treated me much like the one in your scenario!


    1. Thanks for your comment Rob. Great points and while I created the doctor story for effect I imagine it happens in the real world more often than we would like.


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