Peter B. Star on Leadership

In coaching a manager recently, we learned that her biggest challenge was holding two employees accountable for following department procedures and for communicating to other employees in a style that is respectful and collaborative. To put it simply, this manager needed these employees to do their job correctly and be great team players. When we asked this leader why she was hesitant to hold these two employees accountable, she responded with one word…FEAR!

Leadership fear

  • Fear that if they held the employees accountable, the employees would threaten to quit
  • Fear of the employees’ reactions to being held accountable (tears, aggressive response, etc.)
  • Fear that the employees would attempt to spread ill will and discontent among other employees on the team
  • Fear that if they did try to hold the employees accountable, it would make the situation worse. (Example: although the employees come to work late, do not follow policies and procedures, and are not team players, their measurable results “sales” are outstanding)
  • Fear that the employees would become angry or upset and stop talking to them
  • Fear that if they held the employees accountable, the employees would run to someone higher up in the organization who may side with them and not support you in holding the employees accountable

Here is the problem with the examples shared by this leader. When you don’t do what you should do to hold your direct reports accountable…and you don’t take the action out of fear, you are neither a leader nor a manager…you are a HOSTAGE! A hostage, by definition, is someone who is captured against their will. When managers don’t do what they know is the right thing to do, hold the employee accountable, and they don’t do it out of fear, they are being held captive.

To be a leader, you need to be respected. When an employee holds you hostage for one of the above reasons, although the employee does not come and tell you to your face, they do not respect you. A bigger problem is that everyone on your team sees that you do not hold the deviant employee accountable and the rest of the team also lacks respect for the manager.

Here are seven tips to release your hostage bonds and start down the path to re-claim your position of manager and relationship of leader.

Lean in

Employees who hold their managers hostage effectively do so because they know their manager is hesitant or lacks the confidence to talk to them about the issue. We are convinced that employees know what they are supposed to do to make the manager happy and, when they exhibit behaviors that undermine the success of the organization, team or manager, those behaviors need to be addressed in a timely manner.

Don’t manage by hope and hint

When an employee does something they are not supposed to do, tell them exactly what you need them to do differently and when you need them to do it to be a successful member of the team.

Clear your strategy with your boss and HR

Employees who hold their boss hostage are able to do it for a reason. They usually produce strong measurable results. These employees tend to be the best salespeople; the most productive workers. Most times, their customers love them. What you don’t want is for the employee to go around you, their manager, to your boss and have your boss side with the employee over fear of what the employee might do. When the employee says, “I am going to HR or your boss” and you have reviewed your strategy and both HR and your boss are on the same page, you can look the employee in the eye and say, “Going to HR and/or my boss is a great idea. Would you like me to help you get the meeting set up?” When you have that level of confidence, you are well on your way to reclaiming your title of leader.

Follow-up

During your meeting to discuss your employee’s accountability, set up the next meeting to review their progress. If you set up the next meeting for one week, make sure you put it on both your calendars and ensure the meeting happens.

Expect that your relationship with the employee may get worse

When you hold people accountable who resent the fact you are asking them to change their behaviors, many times the relationship gets worse before it improves. For example, prior to meeting with the employee, there was very little communication with me about the progress of their projects.  After I met with the employee about turning their projects in complete and on time, they stopped communicating with me altogether. Holding the employee accountable and working through their problems will make them feel better about their performance and the relationship improves.

Remember the truth

Employees who threaten to quit over being held accountable very seldom actually follow through on their threat. The reason that most employees don’t quit is because when they think about having to find a new job, they quickly remember that any new employer is not going to put up with their crap and they will have to change even more than correcting the problem you are discussing with them.

Have the guts to take big action!

If the employee is not going to change, then you need to regain your leadership title the old fashioned way. Coach them. Counsel them. Train them. Document your process with HR’s help. When all this does not work, SHARE THEM WITH YOUR BEST COMPETITOR. There is no greater strategic planning action than to take the employee who causes you the greatest grief and give them to your competitor and screw up their business plan. When you begin to work on cool stuff with your new employee, your competitor will wonder how they even got into this hostage situation.

Do you have an employee holding you hostage?  Put these seven tips into action and regain your position of leadership.

About the author

Peter B. Stark is a nationally recognized executive coach, author, and speaker. For over 20 years, he has helped leaders build organizations where employees love to come to work and customers love to do business.  Peter’s humorous, customized, informative and content heavy speeches are drawn from his personal experience as a leader, his experience with clients, as well as the information he gains through pre-keynote interviews. Employees and leaders will leave with actionable tips on how to make positive change and achieve both their goals and the organization’s goals.

When someone asks your employees what they do for a living, how do they respond?  With excitement and enthusiasm or with defeat and disillusionment?

Too many employees and too many workplaces fall into the second category. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you apply the 8 secrets found in every positive, high performing organization.

Hire right – Train right

As you well know, one bad apple can spoil the whole cart. But you also know it can be very difficult to get rid of a bad apple or bad employee.  So approach every hiring decision with the utmost discernment.

In particular, focus your energy on recruiting and retaining people who are technically skilled and emotionally competent. In fact, they had better have both characteristics or you will have a sick workplace.

When you’re in the position of having to hire someone, look for ANY signals that tell you the new job candidate may be a drag on the positive culture you’re trying to create. You cannot afford to hire those kinds of people … because they will cost you money, rather than make you money.

In fact, I’m sure you can think of several situations where you walked into a store to buy something, totally ready to spend your money there, but some employee’s behavior was so offensive that you walked out. And instead, you spent your money at a competitor’s place of business. 

Hire right.  And for heaven’s sake, if the people you hire don’t have all the people skills they need, then train them right … right now.  

Protect your positive norms

If your organization has established certain norms of respectful behavior, reinforce those norms.

If, for example, employees are expected to acknowledge every customer within 10 seconds of entering the store, make sure they do it. Or if you have outlawed negative talk about customers, call someone on his violation of the norm if he is trashing a customer.

Don’t let your negative people dismiss your positive cultural elements by saying, “That’s just plain stupid … or … That’s just the way John is.” 

Discover and share success stories

Even though your office, like every office, has some things that could be improved, you’re also doing a lot of things right. Charge everyone with the responsibility of looking for those success stories. And then share a few of those stories at every meeting. Celebrate the positive.

Surface and defuse negativity

No matter how positive, productive, and profitable your organization is, it is not perfect. There are problems and there will always be problems in your organization.

Don’t ignore them. And don’t pretend they don’t exist. As best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Sidney Simon says, “The greatest danger in any relationship is to pretend not to know what we know.”

In other words, you can’t expect to bury the problems and have them somehow magically disappear. When you bury problems, you bury them alive, and the rate of resurrection is almost 100%.

Instead, create a forum where people can safely share their concerns. Take their feelings seriously. Listen intently. And decide on one or two things that can be done to address their concerns.

Conquer one energy-zapping issue at a time

Have everyone write down the specific tasks or job situations that drain them.  Some people may not feel supported by the boss, and others may feel betrayed by a team mate who is not doing her share of the work.

Then brainstorm small immediate steps that can be taken to maintain or recapture the energy at work. And then baby-step it.

Start with a simple issue … where an easy victory is likely … such as greeting one another respectfully and professionally when passing one another, rather than ignore the people around you.

Once you’ve built some confidence and skill in one area, move on to a more challenging issue — such as having to do ten projects at once, with no sense of their priority.

Assign energy as a personal responsibility

Whatever the situation at work, you’ve only got two choices: to produce results or make excuses.  Make it clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to bring the right attitude and the right amount of energy to every task. 

Even if your workplace is somewhat de-energizing, everyone there can still choose to focus on the good, to fill their minds with positive, powerful sayings that will inspire them. It’s not silly.  Every gold-medal winner in the Olympics does it every day.

About the author, Dr. Alan Zimmerman

At the age of 7, Dr. Alan Zimmerman was selling greeting cards door-to-door. By age 14 he owned a small international import business. By age 21 he was teaching at the University of Minnesota, and during the next 15 years, he was selected as the Outstanding Faculty Member by two different universities.

At age 36, Alan had retired from teaching and opened his own speaking and training company. That position has allowed him to deliver more than 3000 programs, to more than a million people, in 49 states and 22 countries. The National Speakers Association has named him a Certified Speaking Professional and inducted him into the Speaker Hall of Fame, which places him in the top 1% of speakers worldwide.

The notion that companies need to invest in their people has been around for many years, but it’s only recently we’ve begun to realize we’ve been investing improperly.  In fact, we often unintentionally do harm.  What?

Consider these common examples that were designed to help but have evolved into expensive and time-consuming affairs that are no longer justified in their current form.

Employee evaluation systems.  They are ostensibly created to keep employees informed about their performance, to offer needed feedback, and to develop longer-term career paths.  In practice, they are often a nightmare, loathed by nearly every participant.  Most should be radically streamlined.

Gamification.  Possibly the most popular engagement-related trend in years, this is a clever approach to helping employee’s win “stuff.”  Stuff (e.g., points to use for coffee mugs, t-shirts, and gift certificates) really doesn’t motivate.  It does, however, create people focused on “stuff” instead of work.

Bloated human resource policy books.  Human Resources is the home for people who care about employees, right?  One wonders.  The modern digitized policy book has become a bastion of arcane rules that does nothing but add problematic bloat.  Well, at least we all know the maximum height for plants on our desks.

These practices take tons of our precious limited time.  They suck up massive amounts of resources.  They have a net neutral, or net negative, effect on motivation.  That means morale takes a hit, indirectly impacting retention and productivity. 

Let’s think about a better way.  For most of us, there are a few givens these days.  Aside from a mission that matters, environmental stewardship, and ethical leadership, there are a few categories of employee investments that make people believe in the organization.  These are investments that attract talent and spur innovation by helping employees in ways that truly matter. 

Think about these modern examples:

Culture based hiring.  Hiring has long been lopsided, focused mostly on skills and IQ.  Understandable, but not sufficient.  Remember, chemistry trumps talent.  So, you need people who fit, not just people who are smart.  That means hiring practices that leverage employee groups beyond the hiring managers, emotional intelligence testing, applied task interviewing, and honest realistic job previews.

Facilitated breaks.  The most productive people and teams don’t work 100% of the time.  For peak performance, the brain needs a few breaks.  Step one – encourage people to take a few small (5-10 minute) breaks during their work day.  Step two – give them options the might enjoy during downtime (e.g., foosball, basketball, walking trails, meditation space, a nap room). 

Employee interest groups.  People often find it comforting and informative to gather with similar others to discuss careers and life at work.  Groups based on age, gender, ethnicity, and other categories are now quite common.  In support of diversity and inclusion, these opportunities for networking within subgroups of employees is a highly valued activity.

Real vacation time.  Regardless of how many days of vacation you actually have, the more interesting question is how many do you use?  In the US, for example, about half of workers have unused vacation time each year (and we don’t have that many to begin with).  The least we can do is honestly help them use what they have.  Managers should be evaluated based on the percentage of vacation time used.  How about a rule that requires mandatory vacation time?

Community involvement.  Offices reside in very real communities.  That means they have an impact in terms of traffic, pollution, noise, and so on.  Thus, giving back matters.  This might take many forms.  Donations and philanthropy are an obvious choice, but real involvement in the form of service projects and participation in charity work are also very popular. 

Friends and family days.  It seems that work often feels immensely separated from the rest of life, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Bringing some elements of non-work life into the workplace can make work feel far more hospitable.  That’s why companies have bring your children to work day, bring your parents to work day, and, increasingly, are trying to make work pet-friendly. 

Concierge services.  Life doesn’t stop just because you’re at work.  Many times, people really need a helping hand getting things done in life to accommodate the time they need to spend at work.  In response to this need, more and more companies are trying to help by providing onsite healthcare, dry cleaning services, and even car washes. 

I can hear what you’re thinking.  Those things are expensive!  True, but you likely have all of the money you need to embrace these practices.  You’re simply spending it on a bloated evaluation system, excessive gamification, meetings dedicated to improving arcane HR policies, and other practices that build bloat instead of productivity. 

If you want to attract and retain a truly great team, pay attention.  Your labor force is shifting rapidly, and the new kids want more than just a paycheck.  They want purpose.  It’s time to let a few practices and policies go so that you can invest in practices that directly serve what matters most – your people.