When a Boss Overreacts, The Wheels Come Off

Recently, I met with an executive from a global technology company and we were discussing leaders reacting to a situation versus overreacting. He told me the following story.

An employee was sitting in a desk chair that had wheels on the bottom of the legs of the chair. The employee dozed off and fell asleep in the chair with his shoulder resting against his office wall. As he fell into a deeper sleep the chair began to roll away from the wall. I think most people could finish the rest of this sad story. The employee fell out of the chair and suffered a shoulder injury. The employee went on to file a workman’s compensation claim.

The story does not end here, however. The report of this incident goes all the way up to the CEO. Upon hearing of this incident, the CEO ordered that maintenance crews remove the wheels from the bottom of every office chair in the company. This involved thousands of chairs.

Disruption, Confusion, Suspicion

This move was not only disruptive and caused confusion and sent a message that employees could not be trusted to safely work from a chair that had wheels on its legs, but it was a total overreaction to a situation. This was a classic case of punishing the many for the sins of a few.

Things Happen

As an experienced leader knows, sometimes people you lead do the wrong things. It could be a failure to adhere to a standard or policy. It might be a failure in character leading to unethical action. It might be a lack of judgment or making a poor decision. These situations could trigger the gamut of responses.

In order to hold people accountable, leader actions may range from verbal counseling, retraining, assigning to a position of less responsibility in order to gain footing again, a letter in one’s personnel file, or perhaps the termination of employment.

When I coach executives and provide leadership consulting services to companies and organizations the topic of holding people accountable to adhere to standards usually comes up. I coach leaders to focus on the employee who had the infraction rather than on the group that the employee comes from.

Sure, there can be some exceptions. If a leader sees a trend occurring across the organization, then perhaps the organization may have to change a policy or procedure. However, instituting group punishment as a first result rarely turns out well, especially as it pertains to growing trust in an organization.

Beware of the Emotional Hijack

Just as emails should not be sent when one is at the height of emotions, leaders should not make decisions when their emotions take hold of them. Take a breath, think things through, and think about the second and third-order effects of instituting group punishment rather than simply handling employee infractions on a case-by-case basis.

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