When It’s Cruel to be Kind

Do you prefer to play the nice guy rather than directly addressing an employee’s problematic behavior? If you are a leader in business, that attitude can be deadly.

“How do I look tonight, honey?”

There she stands. All 5 feet 4 inches and 114 pounds of your loving wife, inquisitively looking up at you seeking the rubber stamp of approval on the latest look she picked up from the mall. What husband hasn’t been to this place before? Problem: the new hat she just paid $59.95 for looks to you like something that wouldn’t make the Aunt Bea hand-me-down list on the Andy Griffith show. It clashes, doesn’t compliment her eyes, and makes her look ten years older. What do you say?

“You look super tonight, sweetheart. Let’s hurry or we’ll be late.”

Coward. You don’t even have some place to be late for, which she’ll remind you of, but that was the quickest, most gutless way to bail out of the situation and run for the tall grass of changed conversations. You feel like a dishonest, pathetic excuse for a person, but here’s the key question—did you do the right thing? Debatable, to be sure, but most guys would give a big fat “yes” response to that question. You spared her feelings and if her friends tell her the hat looks awful, it becomes their problem. Besides, the downside consequences are not too severe, are they?

If you are a leader in business, that attitude can be deadly. In fact, you can kill an employee with compassion and delayed criticism, proving that you definitely can be cruel by being kind. What do I mean? Not long ago I had an employee with a discipline problem; basically, I perceived a lack of dedication to the cause. I had some private discussions with the fellow to try to stem this, and behavior would temporarily change, but I never really dropped the hammer or threatened termination. I saw the signs of continuing problems, and heard the reports from our customers that this gentleman was a problem. I reacted by defending my employee, a good thing to do, but never addressed the issue completely with him. Well, my Board of Directors heard the same reports and took the choice out of my hands, dictating that I fire this person without negotiation. In fact, they eliminated the entire position as a non-value-added part of the operation. I couldn’t help feeling that maybe I could have prevented this by being a little less kind up front.

Become a Healthy Skeptic.
I’ve always believed that people will respond to how you treat them; that is, treat people the way you want them to behave and they will rise to the occasion. If you want employees to act like professionals, then don’t box them in with overbearing anal rules on when they should arrive at the office, when they should go home, or other policies that have brought out the mediocrity in many a corporate workforce. Let them follow your lead and their professionalism will come out. This usually works, but the flaw in the logic is that everyone doesn’t have the same value system. This is where the realist should be suppressing the optimist back into the subconscious mind and welcome forth the skeptic. Some people really do want a mile when you give them an inch. Learn to recognize early on those employees that embrace this philosophy.

Address Behavioral Problems in the Present.
If you recognize that an employee or two just isn’t responding to the environment you create at the office or in the shop, ignoring it and hoping they will fall in line is a doomed strategy. Call in the troubled workers, one at a time, and let them know that this behavior is unacceptable and is not without consequence. Make public the standards of behavior that you’d like to see demonstrated. If necessary, put the employee on probation for thirty days while you gage his response, but whatever you do, highlight the seriousness of the situation and the actions you will take if not remedied.

Don’t Generalize.
The biggest mistake that leaders make with performance problems is they throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. If the kinder, gentler management style yielded a few bad eggs, they assume that the entire population of employees may respond the same way. This causes management to write policy after policy to guide behaviors. Guess what? Company human resource department-heads will advocate that course of action too! Soon you’ll see rules on where to get and return the bathroom pass and have people punching the clock when they need to use the facilities. I am not suggesting to you that companies do not need policies and practices for employees, but be careful how far you go. Employee conscience usually sets a higher standard than any that you will mandate. Think about the companies you know who mandate a fixed amount of sick days for workers, usually in response to the one abuser of sick time. It’s amazing how now everyone gets sick ten days a year. What I am saying is that performance problems are individual issues, so they most often should be addressed individually.

Embrace the Leadership Role.
One of the most difficult aspects of leadership is dealing with employee issues. Many of us recognize these performance issues as headaches that we’d rather not deal with, instead always self-questioning, “Why is this employee such a problem? I would never act this way.” These issues may be headaches, but they are also opportunities. As a leader it is your job to raise the bar on behavior, convert the non-believers, and deliver a better solution today than yesterday. Cherish you ability to impact someone’s life for the better, realizing that a bit of well-placed criticism or discipline today can provide the life lesson for that person so she’ll never again repeat the mistake.

Performance problems, lack of motivation, and even insubordination are issues that can adversely impact the entire organization. Learn to recognize and address them in the present with those responsible. Savor the role you have to right the ship of state of troubled workers and get some successes under your belt, and you will realize that a little cruelty today may just provide the long term kindness that troubled workers need. Having said that, don’t look to me for answers when your better half asks you one lonely evening, “Am I getting fatter?”

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