Functional Leadership in the Workplace

December 18, 2020

One day a long time ago, the HR leader of my company summoned me and informed me that I needed to terminate a direct report due to a serious issue.  Based on the story I was told the situation seemed clear-cut, except for one problem: the behaviors described just didn’t fit with the person I thought I knew.  I went ahead anyway and summoned the direct report to the HR office and proceeded with the termination discussion.  The direct report immediately objected and went on to provide a very plausible - and very different - description of the matter.  I immediately had a major ‘uh-oh’ moment when I realized that only one side of the story had been used to make the termination decision.  In the end:

  • The employee was not terminated.
  • I was humiliated and embarrassed for putting the employee through this i'll-guided drama.  My relationship with the employee took a long time to rebuild, if it ever did.
  • I learned a hard lesson that has paid dividends ever since, both inside and outside of work: ‘measure-twice-cut-once,’ which I adapted from the carpentry trade to mean ALWAYS get the other side of the story before taking action.

Functional Leadership in the Workplace

While I never had a repeat of the above situation (thankfully), I’ve been amazed at how many times one-sided stories have been presented to me.  A common thread to all of these stories is one or more elements that are too incredible to believe, such as the behavior attributed to my direct report in the story above.  Whenever these have hit my radar screen, I would immediately swing into measure-twice-cut-once mode.

How often has this happened to you, where a team member is having difficulty accomplishing an objective, and blames the poor processes of other departments, disinterested meeting participants that jeopardize achievement of goals, or bad professional behavior of others that affects overall morale?  Are you asked to get involved and clear the obstacle?  Do you?  That’s one of the functions of a leader, right, to remove obstacles so your team can succeed?

Before diving in based on one side of the story, however, consider the risk of getting egg smeared all over your face like I did.  Here are some tips you can use to measure twice before cutting.

  1. In any one-sided story, there are always multiple parties.  Ask the ‘story-teller’ to summarize each party’s version of the conflict.  If the story-teller doesn’t know (very common), send them to find out.  In addition, go find out for yourself.  My preferred method is to go directly to the other party, inform them of the frustration being felt, and ask for their perspective.  (I keep the discussion focused on the obstacle, not individuals.)  With this tactic, I almost always learn something I didn't know before that ends up casting the situation in a new light.  I then combine this information with the feedback from the story-teller to get a much clearer view of the conflict.  This is the crucial step that was neglected in my HR lesson.
  2. If the underlying issue is an initiative, project, process improvement, etc., review it to determine if the original goal is still valid.  Remember last month’s article when I advised using the ‘sniff test’ to determine if a situation made sense?  You can use the same principle here.  I’ve often found that seemingly beneficial initiatives are really just transfers of work from one department to another.  No wonder the other department members are being obstinate!  Before you start swinging your weight around in this kind of situation, make sure you understand how all parties are impacted by the end result.
  3. Don’t let the situation linger.  Bad things will happen to those who procrastinate when frustrations are clearly building, such as the story-teller venting his/her frustration in the form of a regretful email, or the sudden publication of a ‘the-heck-with-others-here’s-our-new-department-policy’ that you will have to subsequently explain and clean up.  Again, relationships can be damaged here that can take a long time to mend.

The measure-twice-cut-once mentality is a habit that you can develop, just like brushing your teeth in the morning or parking in the same spot at work each day (or wearing a mask!).  Once you develop the measure-twice-cut-once habit, you’ll find that you are better able to assess situations and make more confident decisions, whether you are watching a newscast, reading an online opinion, or listening to a colleague spin a tale that is too incredible to believe.


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