My son has trouble eating. If he’s watching TV or he’s distracted in any way, he’ll just pick at his food. So, my wife and I have to keep on him to make sure he finishes what he started. My daughter (3 years older than he), knows this and relishes in helping oversee his eating habits.
Today, I fixed breakfast for them both, then went up to my studio to do some work. Some time later, Keira comes up and says, “Is it okay for McCartney to be done eating? He hasn’t finished his waffles OR his yoghurt!”
So I go down and scold McCartney a bit, asking him to please eat. At one point, I said, “Bud, you can’t waste food. You have to finish the food we give you.” And Keira pipes up, “Yeah! I finished my food.” And I ask McCartney to finish and I throw away the top of McCartney’s yoghurt bucket…
…only to find two of Keira’s three French Toast Sticks in the trash.
I do a double take. Make sure that what I’m seeing is really what I am seeing.
And then I confront Keira for her bold-faced lie. After we talked for a moment, I sent her to her room for a time out while I figured out what to do about this.
Look – it’s French Toast Sticks. Who cares? The point isn’t throwing away the food. What she lied about isn’t really all that important. That she lied is really important. And the why is important, too.
A few moments later, I went to her room and we talked. I told her how insidious lying is. I explained to her how important the truth is. And then I paused… and I asked myself a question: “What have I done that made her think that lying was going to be better than the truth?” And so I softened a bit in my approach.
“Baby, do you know daddy loves you?” She nodded. “Did you think that I would be upset with you if you told me the truth?” She nodded. “Did you think that I would think you were more awesome if you told me that you’d finished your food when McCartney didn’t?” She nodded again.
I went on to explain that nothing she could do would ever make me love her less… nothing. And that nothing she could do could make me think she was more awesome than I already do. So lying would never accomplish anything worthwhile, it only led to pain and punishment.
She seemed to understand and we moved on with our day.
In the workplace, people do “bad” stuff all the time. They lie. They cheat. They avoid doing work given to them. They challenge their leaders’ authority. They… do bad stuff. Right?
The first response of most leaders (including me for a large majority of my career) is to address the problem, confront the underlying attitude as you perceive it, make sure the subordinate knows that the way they act isn’t okay, and then – if the problem wasn’t too big – you send them back to work with a black mark hanging above their head because they failed you.
But I wonder if instead, there shouldn’t be another way to enter into the moment of confrontation – with a moment of “What if…?
“What if I have created an environment in which lying about a result is easier than dealing with a failure.”
“What if I have created an environment in which the only way people can get through to me is to challenge my authority?”
“What if I have created an environment in which I am assigning people work outside of their comfort zone or skill set without helping them understand the vision behind their taking on said work? Or in other words, what if I have created an environment of calling and career frustration?”
The point is this: I believe that everything is a leadership problem. Everything. Sometimes the leadership problem is I hired the wrong person. That is a leadership problem, for sure. But coming to that conclusion should come after a large amount of “What if…?” being focused on what I’ve done to aid and abet my subordinates in making wrong choices by the environment I’ve created for them to work in.
Unfortunately, I think too many of us forget to focus the attention on our own possible failures before punishing their subordinates for theirs.
My daughter lying about the food is a problem. She isn’t off the hook for her lying, even if I come to the conclusion that she chose to lie because I am sometimes too harsh in how encourage her and her brother to finish eating, or clean up their messes, or… whatever it is I feel the need to chide them about on any given day.
In the same way, the employee’s actions don’t just get erased or wiped out because you decide to do some internal investigating. What they did was wrong, and will need to be dealt with. But the net result of you doing internal work before confronting them – and asking them to do internal work in response – will be far greater if you lead by example.
Here’s some blunt truth about my own failures... In one job I worked in years ago, I created an environment in which security was far less important than the job one did for me. I pushed people hard and demanded results and – even though we accomplished some pretty spectacular things – my team felt like the work they did was more important than they were. And honestly… they were right.
Later, because of mistakes I’d made, some of my work was called into question by MY boss. And certain team members used this shift in momentum to work in deceitful, subversive and ultimately remarkably ungodly ways to undermine me.
Their actions were abominable and I believe they should’ve been fired for their part in that. Yet looking back on that time in my leadership, I know that my actions created a work environment in which the choices to move into those actions was easier than the alternative… and more lucrative.
Does that make sense? My actions long before this situation arose set up a story that allowed my subordinates to believe that their unprofessional and ungodly reactions were okay. It doesn’t take responsibility off of them for their actions. But I have to understand that as their leader I made their actions seem more okay because of the leadership environment I created.
Here’s a story where my failure led me to a moment of “What if…?” and in turn led to reconciliation instead of more failure.
I had a situation where a subordinate challenged my authority in a very loud (and toxic) manner in a large team meeting. But as he went into his diatribe, instead of puffing up like I SO wanted to, I forced myself into my “What if…?” space and allowed him to say his piece. Once finished, he obviously felt better and as I gauged the room, I realized that he had hurt himself in that moment, not me. So instead of giving him a response to put him in his place in that moment (as I would have done at every stage of my leadership up to that point), I simply said something to the effect, “I think you’ve made some great points … thank you. Does anyone else have anything else to add?”
Then after the meeting, I texted him to please come to my office.
He entered my office with his tail between his legs, scared crapless. He sat down and I started off by saying, “You know, as you were talking today, I realized that I’ve done a bad job of making sure you know how important you are to what we do around here and how important you are to every bit of success I’ve seen in my time here so far. I realized how wrong I was, and I wanted to ask your forgiveness.”
He blinked and looked shocked. “That wasn’t the response I was expecting.”
“No, I’m serious. I was wrong. You’re too important to what I do and what we do for me to make that mistake, and I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me and give me the chance to do better?”
“I mean, of course. And, Chris, I am so sorry for how I acted. I will apologize to everyone.”
And so I told him, “You can challenge me all you want in private. But what happened today can never happen again.”
And it didn’t. And our relationship moving forward was incredible.
I didn’t have to make him own his failures. By owning my own failures, I gave him permission to own his, without judgment. And it all started with a moment of “What if…”
I’m not a great leader. In fact, I’d guess that for every moment of success I’ve seen in leadership, it’s been couched by 10 moments of failure. The point of this is not to point out how great I am, but how my mistakes can help you in abstaining from the same ones.
I truly believe, and I try to live this out daily, that the first question we ask ourselves when someone we lead has done something “bad”, that our first response should be to search ourselves before we punish or attack.
Always start with a moment of “What if…?”