The Devil We Know

“I’d be better off taking the bookkeeping back and doing it myself,” Andrew suggested.

“That’s not dealing with the underlying issue,” I countered. “You outsourced the bookkeeping because you’re not good at it, so taking it back does not serve your primary goal. You need a bookkeeper that will do the task and serve you, the customer.”

“Right! But how do I get rid of him? He has my files, my receipts, all my information. How do I get that back without starting a confrontation?” he asked.

“Oh, I see. You want to bail out but not deal with the consequences. So the issue is with you, not him. You’d rather stay with the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” I said.

“So what’s the better action?” he asked.

Andrew is struggling with a dilemma many business owners wrestle with: an unwillingness to confront poor performance. Whether it’s with an employee, an overdue account or a business relationship, they would rather bitch and complain about a lack of performance than deal with the fallout. The pain associated with a focused, corrective action is greater than stretching it out over time. Do you take off the bandage in a quick rip, or are you prone to pull it off hair by hair? Do you plunge into the cold lake, or slowly wade in?

“Actually your problem is the result of not taking action. You’re enduring the suffering because you refuse to go through the process of letting him go and finding someone more competent,” I replied. “This is all about you.”

Oftentimes when we are faced with challenges, we place the blame ‘out there’; someone or something is doing us wrong. But in reality, we’re just refusing to get clear on what we want. And if you’re not clear on what you want, you can’t initiate a decisive action.

In most situations where inferior performance is causing grief, we know what corrective action is needed but we will do almost anything to avoid going through the anguish that a focused action brings. In Andrew’s case, terminating the relationship and retrieving the information, plus starting over with someone new, was daunting enough to override his frustration with the current situation. So instead of dealing with the real issue, Andrew is left to manipulate consequences. We go to silly extremes to avoid pain, like pulling off the bandage hair by hair!

Getting clear is always the first step. What outcome do you want? Plotting the action to achieve that outcome is the second step. If you’re not clear on what you want, any action you take will only complicate the situation. And since most people avoid getting clear first, they land up manipulating the consequences of hanging onto the devil they know.

“What do you want the outcome to be?” I asked Andrew. “Tell me in 10 words or less.” Once you’re clear, few words are needed.

“To get my bookkeeping on track and up-to-date,” Andrew replied.

“Great! And what action will that take?”

“Deal decisively with my current bookkeeper, get my stuff back and find someone new,” he replied.

“Right! But not just ‘someone new’, you want someone competent. Remember that your clarity will determine how decisive your action – and the response to it – will be. So if you give your bookkeeper another chance or leave it to him to return your files, your wavering will have a consequence on the outcome. If you’re going to ‘rip the bandage off’ then make the action complete. A half-assed action only complicates things.”

Hanging out with the devil we know is a common business habit. How often do you cajole with customers or network with clients even though you know the possibility of ever doing business with them is remote. Instead of moving on and finding new leads or business relationships, you fool yourself with a false sense of comfort. Why invest your time and money and more importantly, your emotional substance, into relationships that will never bear fruit?

Like Andrew, we really do know better.