Most leaders work hard at their messaging. They want certain values to pervade their firm. They want a clear vision, a clear sense of purpose, and a carefully crafted code of ethics imbedded in every member of their team. They speak. They write. They produce videos. They coach. They do all in their power to make sure that their vision, values, and code prevail.
I commend them for these efforts. Yet let me tell you what destroys it all. It is the unchallenged “Contra.” Now, I don’t mean by this word anything having to do with Central American politics. What I mean is the person in your firm who is allowed to conduct themselves “contra” to your vision, values, and code. Their negative example and their verbal counter-assaults undo all the good that you intend and make a lie of your vision, values, and code.
Let me give you some examples. You make “care for people” a bedrock value of your firm. You teach it. You train your executives in it. You model it. But Bob in Operations treats people like dirt. He bullies them. He threatens them. He’s been known to throw a thing or two in one of his tirades. But he isn’t challenged. He isn’t dealt with. He’s still there running contra to your values and making a lie of what you work so hard to establish.
Or, you talk about your firm as a well-oiled machine that is quick on its feet and responsive to customers. Yet Betty in accounting is contra to everything you hope for your organization. She is slow. She hurries for no man. She is unapologetic about it. She dares you to do anything about it. Customer care suffers. And the people in your company see. They see that you are not true to your word. They see that you are unwilling to do the hard things to make your firm consistent with your vision. You won’t deal with Betty. You won’t deal with the Contras. And this negative example radiates—if left unchallenged—more loudly than all your preaching and putting up of signs.
My purpose here is not to incite you to move violently through your firm, lopping off heads and firing people randomly. My purpose is to get you to confront the Contras. Most of them can be turned. Most of them can be brought on board and made productive, devoted team members. It is one of the great arts of leadership to make this happen. Yet it is also an art of leadership to know who can be turned and who can’t. Either way, you have to deal with the Contras. They will make a lie of your vision, values, and code of ethics if you don’t.
How do you do it? First, you decide to defy your own fear of confrontation. You lay aside your need to be liked. You take a gentle stand with the person in private. Their behavior can’t continue. You ask how you can help them change. You tell them you want them on board. You offer all the resources at your command. You also let them know that you won’t have Contras in the firm. You don’t want robots, but you do want committed team members. You won’t put up with people flaunting the foundational principles of all you’re trying to build.
You’ll know what to do after this. Just be courageous. The respect you will win from all who are looking on will take your firm to new levels. Only fear of confrontation is keeping you from these greater heights.