Is there ever a time when a senior leader can hedge a bit on a core company value? What if he or she is making a genuine effort to live that value, but consistently falls short? And, what if that employee is a key player with deep expertise in a much-needed area? When is the right time to say, “This just isn’t working out”?
These are all questions that the general manager of a growing midsized business faced recently. By many measures, things were going well — revenues were on the rise for the third straight year, employee and customer satisfaction was solid — yet the GM couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off-kilter with his leadership team.
After individual meetings with each of the GM’s six direct reports, it became clear that one team member (“George”) was out of alignment with a core company value. George wasn’t doing anything unethical; in fact, he was an upstanding guy who was smart and dedicated to his team and to the company. He had deep expertise in his field and was one of the first players to join the company when it opened a few years prior. George had been recruited by the GM. He deeply wanted to embrace all the company’s core values, but he just couldn’t quite make a genuine commitment to one of them.
So you can imagine the struggle the GM felt when he realized that George, while one of his most talented team members, was not a good fit for his senior management team. George and the GM were in a quandary: Should George keep gamely trying to adopt the key company value, all the while secretly feeling ambivalent, or should he leave the company? They agreed that George should “give it another try” and so they limped along for another six months, with no significant improvement.
Eventually, the GM came to understand that as much as he wished otherwise, George would not fully embrace all of the company’s core values. It wasn’t working out; the GM knew it, George knew it; and let’s face it: the entire senior management team knew it, too.
As much as a leader might like to wish this away, workplace culture expert (and fellow SmartBlogs contributor) S. Chris Edmonds wryly notes, “Unfortunately, there is not a values-alignment pill on the market.”
In his new book, “The Culture Engine,” Edmonds writes that leaders cannot tolerate a values misalignment on their team, no matter how competent and likable the person is. “If they can’t fit in, you must help them out — of the organization,” writes Edmonds. He goes on to say, “You won’t judge their choices, and you won’t budge on your demands for values alignment.”
Leaders caught in the dilemma of a key player who is almost on board with the company culture face a tough choice, but one that must be made: walk the talk, or throw out the values statements altogether. If your team sees you tolerating values misalignment from one team player, the message is clear: It’s OK to bend the rules. You’re either living your company’s values or you’re not.
By staying steadfast to the company (or departmental) core values, a leader will not “budge” on accepting anything less. At the same time, he or she needn’t “judge” people for their choices, but rather point out the incongruence in their behaviors with the stated values. When a team member isn’t on the same page with your values, you must demonstrate leadership “tough love.” It’s the only way you will build a thriving, healthy workplace culture.
Here are some questions to help you determine if you need to exercise some leadership tough love in your office:
- Am I making allowances or excuses for certain team members, such as, “Well, he’s had a tough few months” or “That’s just not the way she operates”?
- Is my behavior something I’d proudly describe to a respected mentor?
- Would I be happy to have this decision displayed on a billboard?
- When coaching a team member on something you perceive is not in line with your company’s stated values, how genuinely willing do they seem to take corrective action?
- Is your reason for keeping this person on, “We can’t afford to lose his/her skills?” If so, turn that around and ask, “What damage are we doing by keeping him/her on board?”
- What does my refusal to take action on this matter say about my values?
- If I legitimately cannot terminate this person’s employment, what can I do to restructure the role he or she plays so that it doesn’t send the message that the behavior is acceptable?
It’s incumbent on leaders to set the tone for how their employees treat each other, customers, and others with whom they come into contact professionally. When the fit of a key employee is slightly off, it can be easy to make excuses or overlook seemingly small infractions. But those differences are highly visible to others in a leader’s organization, and over time, erode the positive workplace culture leaders strive to create.
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her quarterly e-newsletter offering tips for the savvy workplace professional.
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