Avoid disruptions in the workplace by balancing kindness and firmness in leadership.

There was a stretch of time lasting about six months when I would pick up the phone at work and be flummoxed by the most interesting scenarios happening on the other end of the line.

“Sandi, your son is sitting in a trash can in the schoolyard and he won’t come out. What do you want us to do?” Um, I’m 30 miles away. What did they think they should do?

“Sandi, your son has planted himself on the top of the jungle gym and we can’t get him down.” Fabulous — I was distracted and distressed at work but totally impotent at resolving this issue long distance.

“Sandi, class started 45 minutes ago and we can’t get your son to come in from the yard. We have your daughter and her whole class outside trying to coax him in.” You probably wonder what’s wrong with that school and the principal — that you would have corralled that kid long before the third phone call. The interesting thing is, I’ve encountered many leaders who let the adult version of “barrel sitting” go on far too long without corralling their wayward employees.

Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, is an author, speaker and educator. Founder of Jenerations Health Education Inc., she has more than 20 years of experience in health care. She is a frequent speaker at national and regional conferences and was an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University.

Both the school and the principal were both actually very good. They did, however, err in two ways in this situation that also stymie some leaders: 1) They put an inexperienced teacher in a position that was above her abilities, and 2) they were too nice.

The same thing happens to businesses when well-intentioned leaders lose control of even one rogue employee for too long.

My son, a mere five years old at the time, was the perfect example of someone who perceived a weak spot and “went for the jugular.”

He initially took advantage of a teacher who hadn’t yet learned how to control the class when it got bumpy, then he accelerated the behavior when he realized he would face no more punishment than being mildly coaxed to “come into the classroom, please.”

In the meantime, he not only disrupted his immediate class, he disrupted his sister’s class as well.

Like my son, employees notice the weak spots in leadership too, and some will take advantage of them, while others will be disrupted by the ripple effect. Either way, you will lose engagement, productivity and profitability if you don’t stop the behavior.

How often have you heard leaders say they “should have terminated an employee sooner” but didn’t because they felt bad? How often have you heard employees grumble about whether their leaders were “blind about what was going on . . . could they not see that so-and-so employee relies on everyone else to help him get his work done right?”

How often have you heard a leader say they wish an employee “would just quit” to avoid making a difficult decision and being the bad guy? How often have you heard that a team’s morale plummeted because an employee was goofing off and no one was doing anything about it?

How often have you heard someone say, “Well, if they don’t have to do it, I’m not going to either?”

While it’s the actions of an employee that many point to as the issue, the root of the problem is with righting the leadership behavior. It doesn’t mean there may not be issues with specific employees, but the eye of the storm in these situations is the leader.

1. Don’t be a pushover; instead, be confident and strong. If you aren’t there yet, intentionally develop those qualities.
2. Don’t mistake making tough decisions with being mean.
3. Be consistent in terms of the expectations and standards you set throughout the organization, and quickly and firmly address intentional transgressions.
4. Understand that bad behavior and difficult decisions don’t just go away on their own. You have to make them go away.
5. Realize that kindness and firmness can co-exist, and practice finding the balance.
6. Intentionally develop leadership talent at all levels of the organization.

Do you have any “barrel sitters” on your team right now? It’s time to coax them out once and for all.

Sandi Coryell is a leadership consultant, keynote speaker and strategist whose passion is working with executives to transform them from bosses into leaders.


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