How to Keep Organizational Purgatory From Infringing on Your Organization

It is likely that at some point you will be selected for a high-profile assignment or project. Prominent opportunities are presented as a way for employees to make a significant mark within the organization and to highlight their skills and abilities to executive leaders.

For individuals who assume responsibility for assignments or projects that prove less than successful, they could find themselves isolated to what I call "organizational purgatory." Organizational purgatory is a wasteland where experienced or up-and-coming leaders can find themselves if they are perceived as having failed or fallen short on a key project or assignment. Employees can also find themselves exiled to the land of organizational purgatory when they disagree with key leaders, challenge decisions, or question the status quo.

Employees who are relegated to organizational purgatory find themselves being passed over for new assignments, promotions, or committee appointments and may feel like they are on the outside looking in. People segregated to organizational purgatory recognize that something has shifted — they know that something has changed but they may not know what or, more importantly, why.

Ineffective leaders tend to use organizational purgatory as a sanctioning method to manage employees who are either deemed as underperforming or viewed as an interpersonal challenge. Typical behavior includes disregarding team members by withholding opportunities or failing to provide critical feedback regarding performance. Organizational purgatory is generally systemic within an organization, even if an organization espouses honesty, transparency, and collaboration as cultural cornerstones. If the leaders themselves do not model the culture and distance themselves or isolate employees when issues arise, this will become the accepted leadership approach.

Companies that promote an organizational purgatory mindset will find that their employees are less likely to embrace new assignments, challenge processes, present new ideas, or voice disagreement. Like all communities, workplaces establish norms and standards for behavior. If employees believe punitive consequences will result in failing, challenging the status quo, or doing things in new and different ways, then individual creativity, initiative, and innovation will suffer. Instead of having an honest and transparent conversation with the team member regarding performance, many leaders fail to coach the employee on areas of improvement and choose to isolate the person and ignore the situation.

If you sense something has changed between either your manager or your co-workers, schedule a meeting to address the concern. Share your observations and provide specific examples of when or how you believe things changed. Seek clarification on your observations and be open to the feedback provided. Remain curious during the conversation and ask the individual to whom you are speaking what you should have done to meet expectations. If you are assigned to a high-profile project or assignment, conduct frequent reputation checks throughout the process. These checks do not need to be extensive or long meetings but make a point to check in with managers and stakeholders to ensure that the lines of communication are open and assignment and relationship expectations are being met.

Leaders must be willing to have courageous conversations with team members. You are doing a disservice to the employee and the organization by failing to address performance concerns. Demonstrating this type of behavior and providing opportunities for coaching and reflection will help to cement an open and honest relationship between you and the team member.

Leaders who observe their peers sequestering employees to organizational purgatory must be courageous enough to call out the behavior. If a leader voices an unwillingness to have an employee work on a new project for past performance, ask what has been done to address the behavior and what steps the leader has taken to coach the employee. If the leader has done nothing to address the behavior, they should be challenged to step up and work with the employee. Because the most important asset of any organization is its people, choosing to ignore performance that is less than desirable ultimately is a disservice to the organization and its customers.

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