Can Good Leaders Afford to be Patient with Underperforming Team Members?

I recently read an article about patience in the workplace. The author argues that patience is not really a virtue or, at best, it is a ”minor” virtue because it is not one of the theological or cardinal virtues. The author says that consumer impatience is good because it forces the market to create better products and services. He also says that when business leaders are too patient they settle for poor employee work performance which can harm their company. At the end of the article the author advocates for leaders to be impatient with their underperforming employees and not to settle for anything less than “the best.” He calls this “righteous impatience.”

Is patience a virtue?

Yes, patience is a virtue.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that patience is the virtue that guards the mind against sorrow (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 136, a. 1). While he recognizes that patience is not one of the theological or cardinal virtues, St. Thomas sees patience as a very important virtue calling it “the root and safeguard of all the virtues” because it removes the obstacles to other virtues (ST, II-II, q. 136, a.2).

According to St. Augustine, it appears that the key to the virtue of patience is an “even mind.” “The patience of man, which is right and laudable and worthy of the name of virtue, is understood to be that by which we tolerate evil things with an even mind, that we may not with a mind uneven desert good things, through which we may arrive at better” (On Patience, 2). This means that when we suffer, we do so peacefully and also for a “good cause” which we do not abandon in the face of suffering.

Tests of our patience refine us and help us to grow in holiness. When we behave impatiently we are really rejecting the trials that God is allowing us to experience for our own good. This is pride. “All that shall come upon you receive you, and in pain bear up, and in your humility have patience. For in the fire gold and silver is proved, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (On Patience, 11).

A good deed done well

In his Summa, St. Thomas discusses perfect and imperfect virtues, but he recognizes that all of the virtues are connected. Virtues should not operate in isolation from one another. They should work in harmony guided by prudence (ST, I-II, q. 65, a.1). The goal is not just a good deed, but a good deed done well, i.e., a good deed done prudently and in harmony with the other virtues.

For example, if you try to exercise the virtue of justice in confronting an evil, but in the process you carelessly damage a person’s career or reputation, or you attack their dignity, then you probably were never really exercising justice. Instead, you were engaging in some behavior that was radically focused on justice and in the process you were probably acting in an unloving and imprudent manner. On the other hand, ignoring a team member’s poor performance or coddling them to be more “Christian” is irresponsible. It is bad stewardship. It is imprudent. It may even constitute cowardice (the opposite of fortitude).

Remember that Jesus is merciful (love), but he also holds us accountable (justice). Extremes are no good. A good deed done well is the goal. Balancing the virtues creates an unavoidable tension, but that tension holds the virtues together in harmony.

How leaders should address poor performance

If you are a leader, then you have responsibilities to your individual team members, your organization, investors, clients, and others, including the families of all of those people. If you fail in your leadership role, then other people could lose their money, job, reputation, or be scandalized, or worse. Leaders must be patient and loving, but they must also be honest and hold their team members accountable.

Poor performance by a team member should be addressed in a way that causes the least amount of injury to the team member, with a priority on the protection and preservation of the person’s dignity. Completely avoiding hurt feelings or conflict may be impossible though. Therefore, the leader must discern the specific situation and then act prudently to resolve it with the good of both the individual and the organization in mind.

Impatient consumers may drive markets to produce better products and services, but impatience is never virtuous or righteous. Consumer impatience may actually stem from some sinful behavior like consumerism, avarice, or an addiction. Likewise, leaders who want “the best” from their team should be cautious about striving for perfection. Perfection is not humanly possible. Excellence, which leaves room for mistakes and learning, is a more reasonable goal than perfection which is rooted in pride (perfectionism is really just a fear of or refusal to admit mistakes). When using the phrase “righteous impatience,” it seems that the author I mentioned above is saying that there eventually comes a time for leaders to focus on justice and to put love aside, but that is not possible for leaders who seek to do good deeds prudently and in harmony with the other virtues.

Good leaders must exercise the virtue of patience with underperforming team members because if they lose their patience, then the tension keeping all of the virtues together is broken and all of the other virtues may be lost as well. St. Thomas and St. Augustine both recognized that true patience is a gift, a grace from God. Patient leadership, then, reminds me of the words attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”

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