The Common Denominator

I once worked with a delightful guy named Rick. He was cheerful, a real team player, and a kind and conscientious salesperson. He also was madly in love with his wife and nine year-old son, and we all knew it. One day at lunch I about fell off of my chair when I learned that he had an adult son. There had to be a story, so I asked. The next part really surprised me--he also had been married not once, but three times prior. I just couldn’t imagine this easy-going model husband/father having anything other than a storybook relationship with his one true love. What he said though has always stuck with me,

“Yeah, three times. At some point I realized that maybe I hadn’t married three crazy witches, maybe the common denominator was me.”

I probably won’t win any awards for my parenting or my marital prowess, I’m admittedly quite imperfect on both counts, but where this story rings true for me is the rollercoaster ride that has been my experience with leadership. In my case it appears I have a trust problem.

The third time I found myself up to my eyeballs in an impossible situation where an employee had stolen from me or my company a little “Rick alarm” went off in my head. If this keeps happening maybe it’s not bad luck? Yeah, exactly.

So the common denominator was me

What did I learn? Well, let’s start with the facts, those are always easier to sort out. In each case the person who later made off with the goods proved themselves untrustworthy in other ways prior to their theft. Secondary, but critical set of facts, I also overlooked all of these minor transgressions and explained them away. This is where it gets murky and I’m gonna have to wade into those waters and analyze the facts.

Once a liar always a liar?

Traditional wisdom would tell you that small lies lead to big lies, but slippery slope logic is inherently simplistic (a logical fallacy), and my tendency to take a gestalt view can be a liability. Sometimes in my attempt to be objective and non-judgemental I fail to see what is right in front of me. Employee with persistent financial crises + tendency to lie = someone who is at a minimum motivated to steal, and willing to cover it up.

Even as I write this my first inclination is to explain why that combination does not make someone a thief, but I’ll assume you’re smart enough to realize that this isn’t a causal connection. That said, the co-occurrence of these things presenting as a pattern of behavior is very different from isolated lapses in judgement. In short, when people do something repeatedly, take notice, furthermore, respond.

Let’s start with response

What I found myself doing in all these cases was explaining away the poor choices of my employees. When one young woman said she needed to work from home to care for her daughter I was shocked to later see a selfie on Facebook of her with foils in her hair at the salon. And I was very disappointed when a salesperson wrote another’s sale in his number to steal the commission. I could go on and on, but what happened in these cases (and a few more) is that I saw these “small infractions” as mistakes and took little or no action.

Lying to your boss to get a day off doesn’t make you a bad person and certainly doesn’t naturally lead to embezzlement, but my failure to address the behavior did make it easier for her to take further liberties. And I shouldn’t have been surprised that my salesperson who changed an employee number on a sale could be capable of a more elaborate scheme to pocket our profits.

The trust problem

Our modern workplaces are often built on mistrust. From nondisclosure and noncompete agreements to cameras in every corner of the workplace, most companies have made it pretty clear that they don’t trust anyone. I’ve never been convinced that reading my employees email, or watching them on hidden cameras is a good way to get the best out of people. It always seemed to me that if you trust people, they’ll prove themselves trustworthy. I always say,

“People will fill the space you hold open for them.”

That said, some people will consciously or subconsciously test the boundaries. Every time I let someone betray my trust without recourse, not only have I let them know that I’ll tolerate unethical behavior, I betrayed the trust of all the other employees who actually ARE trustworthy.

Leadership isn’t easy, and most of us have to learn it on the job. Any good leader I know admits to making lots of mistakes. We all make different ones for different reasons. It my attempt to treat people with a little more trust and humanity I’ve ignored that very unscientific thing called my “gut instinct.” I don’t have any easy answers here, but I can learn from Rick, and make sure the pattern stops here.

Join me!

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