This excerpt from “Lessons My Brothers Taught Me” by Charles McCarrick highlights the importance of building a great team in business and emphasizes the responsibility of managers to create a supportive workplace environment.
Building a great team is the most rewarding aspect of owning a business. Your employees will inspire you to hold your own bar high and higher. They are trusting you with their livelihoods, and we owe it as managers to acknowledge their dedication and make decisions that safeguard their well-being. It is incumbent upon owners and managers to provide employees a workplace environment that encourages personal and professional prosperity. The risk of permitting even a single obstacle to stand in the way unchecked is a breach of that oath. Deal with all such issues decisively and always toward preserving the fabric of the organization.
Many companies struggle with being correct versus being right. Being correct tends to favor a single individual or a select group of individuals, whereas being right works in the interest of the entire organization. It’s a delicate subject and one not easy to address without being politically incorrect. “Right” is binary, whereas “correct” comes in many shades. (Dick once told me two wrongs don’t make a right, which is easily proved using Boolean algebra). To illustrate, suppose you have an employee on staff who simply does not fit in. Maybe they lack capability or work ethic or display behaviors that do not blend well with the company culture. The correct thing to do is find or create another job within the organization that suits them better, to relocate them within the workflow, and to minimize further disruption. Alternatively, the right thing to do is immediately discharge them for their own good and for the good of the company. This is what Jack Welch, ex-chairman and CEO of GE, would recommend. Instead, we tend to invoke kindness and other emotions into our decision-making, often at great expense and detriment to the organization. We are not the wolf pack (or Jack Welch) that only does the right thing. When a member of the pack proves unfit to keep up, it is discharged from the group or dispatched by more permanent means. We are human after all, and survival has a different meaning for us. But a true act of kindness is one that prevents prolonged suffering of an ill-fitting employee and of those left to pick up the slack. It means doing the right thing correctly. Don’t delay a decision once the need to act has become publicly obvious; it detracts from doing the right thing. It is important to find the proper balance between correctness and rightness in our decision-making. Each decision affects the entire organization at many levels. Lean toward those benefiting the greater good.
Despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself with an ill-fitting employee who is simply recalcitrant and rejects the corporate philosophy. This can become a source of stress, disruption, or even paralysis. They might possess over-the-top intelligence yet display a subpar work ethic or, worse, be passively antagonistic toward authority. Authority refers not only to the hierarchy established by the company’s organizational chart but also its policies and moral code. Most frustrating is that these individuals may well have abilities exceeding all others or the potential to be your greatest asset, but some character flaw makes them unreliable or prone to behaviors serving their own purpose and opposed to the interests of the company at large. Most authors of business management books will advise us to discharge these individuals expeditiously to avoid a toxic situation and before everyone else gets a sip of the poison. That may be the right thing, but the reality is that it might not be the correct course of action for various reasons. Maybe that employee has trade secret knowledge that could be used against the company. Maybe Uncle Leo will call in his loan if Junior is let go, causing you to file for bankruptcy. Or maybe the employee has skills vital to the operation that are not easily replaced. I lacked the authority to discharge my mother as the household cook. Even if I’d had it, starving to death was not an attractive alternative, so I correctly managed otherwise.
Managing to succeed is simple enough so long as you have the right people with the right attitudes, but quite complicated if even one individual on the team is in discord with the corporate agenda. What is to be done in that case? You must contain the situation as though invoking quarantine. In the context of medical remediation, a quarantine is used to isolate an infected individual or small population from the general population to prevent the spread of contamination. A quarantine is not meant to be permanent; once the situation is resolved, it’s back to business as usual. This is a good analogy for the case in business when you have a particular individual, small group, or situation that will have a potentially negative effect on the entire organization if allowed to continue unchecked. Establish a virtual boundary to isolate the company culture from individuals or elements that might inadvertently create conflict. Within the boundaries of that imagined compartment, assign specific goals that must be met and a semi-rigid timeline. What is most important is that the sole responsibility of the undertaking is clearly defined to the insubordinate individual. Quarantines are not time-restricted; they take as long as they take. If it never gets done? Lower the bar. This is a process that may sometimes be necessary to keep both the work and the difficult employee moving in the right direction. Adapt by reducing assignment complexity until achievement is certain. Do not let this individual’s responsibility prematurely transfer beyond the imagined boundary in a manner that hinders company resources or fires up the blame machine. Contain responsibility until it produces the desired result before evolving into the next phase of the workflow process. Granted, it seems like a lot of effort, but it’s a necessary course of action when termination is simply not a simple option. Speaking from experience, it is the only method that facilitates a positive outcome in even the most dire of circumstances or when all other options seem untenable. Threats, reprimands, and “constructive feedback” tend to breed resentment and more insubordination. Depersonalize the situation and deal with it objectively. It is a process meant to be the opposite of termination; it’s built instead upon determination and places the onus upon the manager to make it succeed.
The following describes a situation that evolved over time into an HR nightmare but was dealt with in the manner just described. It is our policy to employ the best-suited person for the job, based on qualifications, attitude, and character, to which we credit our remarkably collegial, diverse, and capable workforce. We hired a highly qualified individual possessing these attributes and tasked them with establishing a new department within the company, giving them liberal reign to do so, including the hiring of all pertinent positions. As people were brought on and the department grew, questions were raised within the organization about the competency of these individuals as evidently this team was doing the opposite of what it was commissioned for. Instead of expediting product flow, it was bringing it to a complete halt, and much discussion within the employee ranks centered on how incapable this department was of understanding or handling what was expected of them. It was obvious they were being hired based on attributes other than competency. There was no denying it; they were being hired primarily based on skin color. Relative to every other department within the company, this one department had the least diversity by far. We had an acknowledged racist in our midst, an HR nightmare that ran contrary to our practice of celebrating diversity and of choosing the most qualified person for the job. The situation was poison to our culture, so one of my first initiatives after assuming the role of president was to tackle this problem.
Putting yourself in my position, what would you do? Better yet, what would fairness and ethical behavior demand that you do? Hell, what would the law require that you do? If terminating the head and/or the entire department was your answer, forget it. Just imagine the discrimination lawsuits that would be filed. You’d have little hope of a convincing defense in a climate where the mere utterance of a person’s ethnicity, persuasion, or political leaning in any context is PR doom for every employer. Although this was clearly a case of discrimination, we had to tread carefully or else be accused of the very thing we were trying to eradicate. We began by reassigning each team member to other departments and had their team leader report directly to me. I spent hours and hours coaching and assigning that person tasks that were simple and intended to promote diversity and success. In the end, every individual originating from that department, including the head manager, quit of their own accord, save one who developed into a superstar once given the opportunity of working under a caring, open-minded manager, exemplifying the power in quality relationships.