I spoke at an event recently. The whole affair was beautifully produced, skillfully executed, and employed the best technology. My part went well because it had been positioned masterfully by the producer and so was like a small diamond made brilliant by being placed in the right setting. I was grateful.
As the event came to an end, I ended up standing near a crew member of one of the firms that had made the event so glorious. Though he was still on the job, he was already drinking. He seemed addicted to foul language, which he loudly and joyously declared for all to hear. He also reclined in a comfortable chair while the rest of his crew, including his supervisor, scurried about concluding the day’s business.
When I told some friends this story, they insisted the man should be fired, that he’s a “low life,” and that he betrayed his otherwise stellar firm. I have a different response. I see in this a flawed leadership culture. What allowed this scene to occur is the absence of something essential to all successful leaders: confrontation.
You see, this crew member was obviously skilled enough to be hired in the first place and by a leading firm. Yet his misbehavior had not been checked. It had almost certainly been increasing over time. He had probably dropped a foul word or had a brief drink on the job early in his employment. When no one corrected him, he kept doing more of the same over time.
What this crew member needed was a healthy, low-level confrontation. He needed for his supervisor to say—and this should have happened the first time he misbehaved— “Joe, we don’t drink on the job. Save that for when your work is done.” Or, “Hey, Joe, watch the cussing. Our clients are nearby and we want to put on our best face for them.” Or, “We need all hands on deck until the work is done, Joe. Recline later on your own time, my friend.”
Any of these short sentences probably would have changed this man’s behavior. The problem is that most leaders—and this man’s supervisor in particular—avoid confrontation. It scares them. They are usually too concerned about what people will think of them if they confront. So, they let destructive behavior go unaddressed.
Here is a principle I urge you to remember: Low level, healthy confrontations will fuel an organization, powering it forward. Neglecting this kind of confrontation only leads to bigger, explosive confrontations that do great damage.
If the crew member I mention is not confronted in an immediate and firm but friendly way, there will eventually be a blow up and a destructive firing. Yet if he is confronted, then his behavior changes, everyone learns, the leader who does the confronting gains respect, and the whole firm benefits.
Great leadership creates a culture of low level, healthy, brief corrections that gets people on track without lasting damage. Cowardly leaders run from these kinds of confrontations and they pay heavily for it.
Take stock of your leadership culture. Does it include a commitment to healthy confrontation where needed? If the whole idea scares you, ask yourself why. Do some soul probing to discover why the simple act of confronting and correcting a team member pushes such negative buttons in you. Then, start building a courageous culture of skillful, low level confrontation that prevents more expensive blow ups.