“Why Do I Suddenly Have a ‘Problem’ After All These Years?”

Dear leaders, sometimes you’ve just gotta face the music.

Recently, a senior leader emailed me to ask how to handle employees’ reactions in situations where management has begun to take decisive action to address longstanding problem behaviours by these very employees.  Her concern was that such employees (often with the union’s support) express upset and outrage, and put forth the question: “Why do I suddenly have a ‘problem’ after all these years?”. (In this specific case, the problem is that the employees in question have for years been intimidating others and creating a poisoned work environment).

Well, here’s the essence of my response to that leader:

“From the employee’s perspective, this is a totally legitimate question. After all, management did nothing all these years and is suddenly changing the long-standing rules of the game without warning!

So here’s the equally legitimate managerial response: ‘You’re absolutely right, we should have taken action years ago and we didn’t. We take full responsibility for our omission. And now it is time that we do what we should have done long ago, because we are more fully aware of our responsibility both moral and legal to provide for all your colleagues a safe environment where they can perform at their best, free of fear and worry’.

In short, own up to your contribution to the problematic situation before demanding others to take ownership of their own behaviour. That’s called ‘being fair’.

And by the way, if you want to practice fair and just management, then well before you change the rules of the game, you ought to communicate clearly to everyone that from now on the expectations will be different, as will employee accountabilities, as will management actions. Only then do you proceed to act. “

That’s the gist of my response to this leader pertaining to her particular challenge. Needless to say, this approach applies not only in cases of ‘respect issues’. It applies everywhere where you as a manager decide to hold people accountable for behaviours that you tolerated for years (and shouldn’t have).

And that’s my two cents!


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