You may think you’re being direct, but you may be terrorizing your employees. Read on to understand the difference between being direct and running a ruthless regime.
I recently observed a manager shaming, blaming, and basically terrorizing one of his employees. It was horrible to witness and was very, very clearly causing more problems than it solved.
From his perspective, I believe the business owner felt he was being direct, and was rooting out the cause of his employee’s errors and “insubordination.” Based on my expertise and insight (and having inside knowledge of this situation), I could see that he was belittling her, shaming her, and humiliating her in front of their client. He was embarrassed, frustrated, and downright angry that his employee had not met expectations–neither his nor the client’s.
The employee in question was managing several projects and did not follow the communication protocols agreed upon between herself and the client. The client was ready to fire the company because of this, but was willing to give the company one more chance IF the company fixed its errors and followed through on their agreements. I could completely understand the frustration of the client and the business owner, but I could also see how the business owner’s managerial style was causing more problems than it was solving.
Sometimes people make errors. Sometimes they’re egregious, unforgivable ones; however, most errors can be fixed with the right people skills.
Here’s the right way this situation should have been handled:
Person who made the mistake:
- take responsibility (explain the situation, acknowledging your contribution to the problem),
- don’t make excuses,
- state your plan to rectify the situation.
Supervisor/ Client/ Business Owner:
- accept the apology,
- decide if the plan is a good one, and if not give direction on the steps you would prefer be taken,
- give measurable outcomes that will determine if the new plan is successful/ acceptable,
- explain the consequences if the problem is not corrected to your satisfaction,
- let it go.
Now, if you’re the business owner in this situation, you may not want to let it go. It’s likely that you feel wronged, betrayed, embarrassed, and angry. Yes, you want to make things right for your client–this business owner did too. He was so upset with his employee though, that he couldn’t see how his treatment of his employee was actually endangering his relationship with the client.
As a business owner, leader, or manager, it’s important to be able to step into a place of neutrality. Being neutral is not the same as being “direct” or detached. Many times, detachment and so-called “directness” comes from a place of holding our anger back, or trying to keep our frustration in check. If this is the case, you will come across as judgmental and punishing.
I am a very direct person when it comes to business. I get easily frustrated when someone does not do what they say they will do. I also believe that kindness is critically important when dealing with others (and ourselves). Kindness and directness are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to be kind, understanding, and direct while maintaining strong boundaries and high standards. But to do this, you have to be honest with yourself.
If your “directness” stems from impatience, frustration, and annoyance, it is probably causing you more problems than it is solving. In this case, the business owner had terrified this employee (and we can extrapolate from this to assume many of his other employees probably feel the same way). His employee did not feel she could speak to him honestly, because his response to anything he saw as weakness or insubordination was to repeatedly ask her humiliating questions about what she did wrong. Was she in the wrong? Yes. Were there extenuating circumstances that the client would have been sympathetic to? Yes.
In this situation, the employee didn’t communicate appropriately with the client, but told the business owner she had been working as assigned. In a 3-way meeting, the employee acknowledged that she had been careless, apologized for it, and agreed to follow the agreed-upon protocols going forward. Was the employee 100% truthful with her employer throughout the process? No, I don’t believe she was, despite a 3-year working relationship.
So whose fault was that?
As an objective observer, I believe this problem stemmed from a belittling, bullying, punitive management style. The employee was definitely at fault for her lack of communication and not following the agreements made between herself and the client. She had been in the hospital, was overwhelmed, and didn’t communicate that she couldn’t make the necessary progress. That was poor judgment on her part and caused problems for the client. As a business owner myself, I find this unacceptable. So, you may ask, how can I say this is the business owner’s fault?
In troubleshooting this issue, everything clicked into place for me after observing how the business owner treated his employee. While he thought he was being direct, he was treating his employees like bad children who needed to be disciplined (think: cold, disapproving father). By ruling from a place of fear, his employees did not feel safe and were working in constant fear of being disciplined or fired.
When you manage this way, you receive poor communication, half-truths, and create an overall feeling of distrust in your company. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge errors and deal with disciplinary issues from a place of neutrality–where you are not simply holding your annoyance/ anger in check, but are actually emotionally neutral–you will become known as a fair leader. “Tough, but fair” is a compliment, and a management style that produces respect. While the perks of being a dictator are certainly good (everything gets done your way and no one questions your orders), it’ll eventually come back to haunt you.
You can’t expect people to be better than you let them be.