Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Intervene Before The Harm

Intervene before employees and the organization are harmed.Question: What do all chronic workplace behavioral and performance problems have in common? Answer: In every case, there was a first time for the problematic behavior or performance. (There was probably a second, third, fourth, and up to fiftieth, one hundredth or one thousandth time!)

Another question: When a workplace crisis has occured, how often have you heard someone say, “I was afraid that would happen one of these days.” Or, “I could have told you he would just get worse.” Or, “Everyone thought she might do that kind of thing sometime.” Answer: Too often. 

I am not implying that you are responsible for every negative workplace issue with which you are dealing, especially since you may have inherited some long-term employee problems from other supervisors or managers. However, it is certainly true that most problem behaviors and work performance issues in any workplace could have been prevented, stopped, or the harm reduced, if a supervisor or manager had intervened early. A good guideline is this: Intervene before the harm.

In this context intervention refers to a myriad of supervisory and/or organizational responses to problems, from mild to severe:

*Talking to an employee about potential problems and discussing ways to avoid the problems
*Assistance, support or encouragment, training, advising
*Conversation and clarification, redirecting, reminding, close observation 
*Correcting, counseling, reprimanding
*Organizational responses:  Referral to resources, required medical or psychological treatment, re-training, reassignment, adjusting work conditions, using the formal disciplinary program–up to dismissal

In one of the supervisory classes I teach, participants learn about five stages of workplace problems. Not all problems move through these stages–or at least not obviously–but many do. Consider these stages as they relate to the employees with which you work:

1. A potential for problems. Based on your knowledge and skills, experiences, awareness of the employee or the work, or general concerns, what potential problems do you want to alert employees about?  How can you help them develop ways to avoid the problem or react to a situation if it occurs? Don’t assume an employee knows–talk about it. 

Some phrases for intervening at the potential stage: “In situations like this, there is a temptation to….”  “Here is something that has happened before, that you should be watchful about….” “The thing that could lead to problems with this assignment is….” “Here are some things we want to guard against in our office…..”  “These are the behaviors we want and the ones we don’t want….” “Here are the main times when you might have problems with this….” “What do you think might be some of the potential problems in work like this?”

The potential stage requires more than a warning or reminder, it should also include advice about how to avoid problem behavior or performance: “If you see that happening, be sure to let me know so we can work on it right away…” “Here are some ways to avoid being in that situation…” “The minute you realize that is happening, do this….” “Don’t even do that one time. Instead….” “If you start having trouble with that, let me know immediately….” “If that happens, what could you do?” “How will you handle a situation like that?” “I have found it helpful to do this….”

2. First indicators. This is the very first time something happens that concerns you, frustrates you, irritates you or that you don’t want to have happen again or be viewed by other employees as acceptable. Most supervisors have had an “Uh oh!” moment, when they realized that an employee was not behaving or performing as he or she should. The first time it happens is the best time to intervene and ensure it doesn’t happen again. At this stage you may only need to redirect, provide more training or better support, counsel briefly, or correct and clarify expectations or instructions.

3. An identified problem. Now, there is no doubt: Behavior or performance is not what it should be. There may be a rules, policy or procedural error, deviation or violation. Or, something problematic may have happened more than once and appears to be starting as a regular event. Whatever the situation, it is clear that a supervisory response is needed before it happens again or becomes habitual. At this stage it may still be possible to solve the problem with a relatively small degree of supervisory intervention, but action will have to be direct and focused.

4. A chronic or acute problem. Chronic means problem behavior or performance is happening repeatedly; acute means it is serious in its impact, no matter how many times it has happened. It is likely that strong supervisory or organizational responses will be required. A mere reminder or small degree of adjustment is not going to be enough for a problem that has reached this stage.

5. A crisis occurs. There is little that can be done at this stage except to prevent the harm from happening again, mitigate the damage some way, and ensure that all the resources available are being used. Often when a crisis occurs it will be disruptive at many levels and may even be a matter of public knowledge. The thing you will hear most often at this point is, “Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again!” That is like placing a barricade after a washed-out spot in the road.  (And, that is why I choice the photo for the beginning of this post!)

At which stages will a supervisor have the most direct role? The first two: When there is a potential for problems, and at the point of the earliest indicators of a problem. After that, the problem behavior or performance won’t be as easy to correct and may require organizational action, or documentation to higher levels. If you want to think about it from a leadership perspective, consider this: By intervening early you can truly be an influential leader and prevent harmful situations. After that you are only peforming your required organizational role to correct problems. Both activities are valid, but the first is by far the most personally and professionally fulfilling, and the most helpful for others.

When you are considering intervening about behavior and performance issues, remember this: The earlier, the easier.

There will never be a problem-free work group, but, you can prevent chronic or acute problems by intervening early, before the harm. When you do that, you make it easier for the employee, the work group, the organization, and for yourself

March 2nd, 2008 Posted by | Supervision and Management | 2 comments


  1. You are so good at this! I wish I would have been taught some of these things years ago, because it would have saved me, my company and employees, a lot of problems! We have had three situations in the last year in which we said afterwards that we could tell, or should have known, the thing would happen. We all knew it, but we never did anything until the chronic or crisis stage! I don’t think we could have saved the employees directly involved, but we could have saved the other employees from having to deal with those people.

    Thanks also for your personal support of me, Tina. I don’t always do the right thing, but I’m better than I was, thanks to your help. P.

    Comment by P.A.H. | March 4, 2008

  2. Thank YOU for commenting on this post. As you know, the idea of intervening before the harm is one I feel very strongly about. I look back over my history as a supervisor and manager and am ashamed at the things I noticed, worried about or was frustrated or irritated about, but didn’t say anything. Or, I hinted, and hoped that would help. I didn’t want to seem to be bossy or pushy or meddling or whatever, but as it was, I let things develop that could have been helped or stopped much sooner.

    So, you and I both don’t always do the right thing, but we’re getting better!

    Thanks again! T.

    Comment by Tina | March 4, 2008

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