Guest Post by Timothy R. Clark, author of Leading with Character and Competence: Moving Beyond Title, Position, and Authority
When a dog bites, word gets out. You stay away and keep away. There’s no discussion or negotiating with the dog; you simply avoid the animal.
How about a friendly dog? You’ve seen what happens: Friendly dogs attract people. They can actually bring people together, put them at ease, and get them talking. It’s an odd thing, but a friendly dog can influence people to be more kind and collaborative, setting aside their natural reservations and inhibitions.
Imagine this scenario: You’re walking down the street and see a friend who says, “I want to introduce you to Chester, my new dog. He rarely bites.”
Your friend continues, “Chester is a great dog, except when there’s pressure, stress, or fear, he may bite. But don’t worry, it’s only happened a few times.”
What would you think? Is it good enough that this dog is a wonderful companion 95% of the time?
Now bring the example into the human realm. If you are a boss that only “bites” 5% of the time, that’s ok, right? I mean nobody’s perfect. Doesn’t the 95% good behavior override those rare hurtful episodes?
Unfortunately, that 5% is what rules the day, directing people toward risk management, pain avoidance, and self-preservation.
Duane Dike, the former manager of entertainment operations at Disney summed it up nicely, “Every move leaders make, every decision, every glance, every word is scrutinized, dissected, torn apart, and reconstituted in the break room. Inconsistent behavior, from good to bad and back, is possibly the worst condition of all.”
Psychological safety drives performance. When people feel safe to ask questions, share ideas, challenge the status quo, give and receive feedback, and even make bounded mistakes, it changes everything. It energizes people and stimulates creativity and innovation.
Where psychological safety is high, we call it a “blue zone” — a space that accelerates learning, incubates ideas, and allows people to own their performance.
“Red zones,” where people do not feel psychologically safe, are compliance-driven rather than commitment-driven. In a red zone, people perform far below their productive capacity.
Why? Humans worry about safety before they worry about performance.
Getting back to our analogy, the boss that only bites every other Tuesday simply can’t create enough psychological safety to build a blue zone. To the employees, the risk is too great and the stakes are too high.
Recently, I was working with a tech company in Silicon Valley, and a crackerjack software developer said to me, “My boss is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but nobody cares because he doesn’t know how to work with people, treat people, and value people. He’s nice until he isn’t. Nobody wants to be around him. It’s too risky.”
When the fear of being bitten is replaced with the assurance that they will consistently be treated as a human deserves to be treated, people will release their discretionary efforts and performance, creativity and innovation will thrive.
About Timothy R. Clark: Tim is founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a leadership, strategic agility, and change management consulting and training firm, and co-founder of BlueEQ, provider of the market-leading BlueEQ emotional intelligence assessment and training. Tim is the author of four books, including the award-winning Epic Change as well as The Leadership Test and The Employee Engagement Mindset, and more than 125 articles on leadership-related topics. He recently released a new book, Leading with Character and Competence: Moving Beyond Title, Position, and Authority (Berrett-Koehler). As a consultant, coach, and speaker, Tim works with leadership teams around the world. A former two-time CEO, he earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University and was a first team academic all-American football player at BYU.
I beg to differ, Jesse.
A boss has to bite if the employees slack off, consistenly underperform, or show lack of integrity.
I’d say this happens with 5% of the employees.
Your comment makes me realize that “bite” is not clearly defined. I agree that people need to be accountable for their behavior, but it is possible to hold people accountable without being disrespectful.
Jesse is exactly right. A bite is any any form of disrespectful or abusive behavior–including fear, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation.
Can you firmly hold someone accountable without disrespecting them? Of course you can, but many people find this hard and shy away from it. What’s even worse is when they excuse themselves for biting. There is no excuse.
By all means hold people accountable, administer the consequences, but do so respectfully.
Watch dogs making friends in the park. Dogs bite. It’s part of the protocol.
To a certain extent it’s how hard we bite and where, but more than that it’s what we do after we bite that pushes the relationship positive (blue?) or negative (red?).
I liked the analogy and do think it is useful to keep in the back of your mind at all times; however, I must agree with Anurag. I also know not everyone works in a Silicon Valley software startup where we are seeking creativity in “blue zone.” Some jobs require sitting or standing hour after hour cranking out work or answering calls from angry people all day “with a smile on your face.” Leading those employees requires more work than leading the millennial snowflake, who is afraid of the dog’s bark, into the “blue zone.”
In those kinds of jobs, good leaders sit down or stand up, as the case may be, shoulder to shoulder with their employees and crank out the work when it gets backlogged, or take the angriest calls when a customer service agent is at wit’s end. In that way, the leader makes deposits in the emotional bank accounts of employees (aka earning respect). Then, when the leader needs to bark or even bite a team member, the rest of the employees know and trust that the big dog is doing it for everyone’s good because they know and trust their leader.
Wonderful comments. I think the hard question we need to ask ourselves is whether we can be firm in holding people accountable without disrespecting, demeaning, belittling, or abusing them. Many people think they have to cross this line when people are not performing. I don’t agree.
I played college football at BYU for a legendary, hall-of-fame coach, LaVell Edwards. He had one losing season in 30 years, won a national championship, and earned every accolade in his profession. I never saw him bite a player–and when I say bite, I mean disrespect or abuse one of his players–even once. There were many intense times, there were great victories and heart-breakers, there were times that players had lost their poise and cool, but he never did. He modeled how this can be done.
Early in my career, I became the plant manager of a large integrated steel plant. It was a rugged place with the legacy of a command and control, fear and intimidation culture. With 400 managers and 2,500 hourly workers, I dealt with every conceivable performance problem. I reprimanded people, fired people, and corrected people. Consequences were real and swift, but we didn’t bite people. We didn’t disrespect or abuse them. We administered consequences as the natural and expected outcome of an individual’s choice. There was never a need to attack the individual and become ugly. Anyone who tells you it’s necessary to get nasty is either personally insecure or suffering from an overabundance of ego. Just make sure you mean what you say and that your consequences have real teeth. If there is consistency in your follow-through, everyone gets it. This is leadership in action.
You’re defining bite. That’s okay, but you needed to make that implicit in the original post.
(Maybe I should have said you needed more information instead of just saying, too short. :-/)
Perception and the lens people view things through are everything. What one person perceives as a bite someone else just blows off as the boss is having a bad day and they don’t take it personal. You have to know your people and tailor responses to some degree to each individual. There is an art that is challenging to learn to having hard conversations with people in ways that leave everyone with their dignity and self-respect intact.
One of the things we are working on in some leadership training is using the OSKARS model with employees. It is a coaching & mentoring model. (Outcome-is everyone clear on what outcome you are looking for-employer & emploiyee; Scaling-how do employees see themselves and how does the rest of the team view them on a scale from 1-10. Or, if 10 is fully proficient in their job what # would they give themselves. Do they underestimate or overestimate their abilities. Knowledge-do people have the skills and knowledge they need to do what you are expecting them to do. If not, what as a leader are you doing to address that. Affirm-Feedback about how they are doing, what the next steps are they are going to take to get to the outcome you are after. Review-reinforce and track how they are doing and if the activities they are engaged in are taking them to the outcomes you need. Activities do not always result in outcome. Stabilize-periodic reviews, accountability, consistency in practice to get to the outcomes you are seeking. Focus on outcomes.
These are positive ways to work with staff, hold them accountable, and get outcomes that you need. It helps to commit people to changes they need to make or refocusing efforts on meeting desired outcomes. Unfortunately, many bosses don’t want to invest the time and effort to do this kind of thing as it is easier to do the 5% behavior. But, in the end these are the things that can really pay huge dividends with employees and keep them engaged, enthused, and performing.
Great comment. That’s why coaching is the basic blocking and tackling skill of a manager. If you can’t coach, you can’t manage. Period. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising that Google’s competency model’s first element is “Is a good coach.”
There’s never a good reason to bite, bark, yell or attack any employee even for a brief moment. That shows a lack of emotional control and disregard for the emotions and personal development of others. And the victim isn’t just the person who now bears “teeth marks.” The aggressive behavior impacts everyone. Of course, sometimes it’s that final straw that breaks the back of the best leaders, but even those leaders have something to learn. In the final analysis, it’s about performance, accountability, emotional stability, empathy, and influence. I recently spoke with a VP of a multi-billion dollar company. When asked what made him successful, he never mentioned the word “bite.”
Excellent point that the victim is not just the individual that is the focus of the attack. It demoralizes the entire team. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Michael.
From my experience, biting is not necessary and typically is just an ego being flexed. Isn’t some coaching and a well placed growl typically more than enough to redirect employees to the commitments they have made?
When expectations are clear, well communicated and agreed upon, and resources supplied, then corrective feedback is for the benefit of the employee. The supervisor in this case is making an effort for THEIR benefit, to help THEM succeed with the commitments THEY have made. This shouldn’t be emotional. Circle back and check, are expectations clear, do they have the resources they need to succeed?
Most dogs show their teeth, even growl before they bite. It should be enough that they know you have teeth…depends on the industry and work environment.
“Random acts of management” like random biting, are not effective in the long-term. When management acts, it should be based on data available to both management and the front-line. Who likes negative surprises? Let your employees know the score….so they can perform for their benefit and yours.
Many excellent points in this article. I agree that when fear and intimidation is used discretionary effort and creativity is invested somewhere else…perhaps in a well-organized job search. In that environment, good ideas are not shared, problems are hidden or worked on in secret, blame is placed, teams focus on the “5 whos” instead of the “5 whys” and most of the creative juices are expended on self-preservation.
You make an excellent case for dependability. When people don’t know what to expect, they become distracted and nervous, and their attention becomes directed toward their boss rather than toward their work.