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Cruel to Be Kind

Avoiding an employee’s behavior problem is not in your—or his—best interest.

By Karl Walinskas

“How do I look tonight, honey?”

What husband hasn’t been to this place before? The new hat looks to you like something that wouldn’t make the Aunt Bea hand-me-down list. It clashes with her clothes, doesn’t compliment her eyes and makes her look 10 years older. What do you say?

“You look super. Let’s hurry or we’ll be late.”

Coward. That was the quickest, most gutless way to bail and run for the tall grass of changed conversations. You feel like a dishonest, pathetic excuse for a person, but here’s the key question: Did you do the right thing?

Debatable, to be sure, but many would respond with a big fat yes. You spared her feelings, and if her friends tell her the hat looks awful, it becomes their problem. Besides, the downside consequences are too severe, aren't they? If you are a leader in business, fearing the consequences can be deadly. In fact, you can kill an employee with compassion and delayed criticism, proving that you definitely can be cruel by being kind.

Not long ago I had an employee with a discipline problem. I had some private discussions with him, but I never really dropped the hammer or threatened termination. His behavior would temporarily change, but I saw signs of continuing problems and heard from our customers that this gentleman was a problem. I reacted by defending my employee, which is a good thing to do. However, I never completely addressed the issue with him. Ultimately, my board of directors heard the same reports and took the choice out of my hands, dictating that I fire this person without negotiation. In fact, they eliminated the entire position as a non-value-added part of the operation. I couldn’t help feeling that maybe I could have prevented this by being a little less kind up front.

Flawed logic
I’ve always believed that people respond to how you treat them. If you want employees to act like professionals, then don’t box them in with overbearing rules on when they should arrive at the office, when they should go home or with other policies that have brought out the mediocrity in many a workforce. Let them follow your lead and their professionalism will emerge.

This usually works, but the flaw in the logic is that everyone doesn’t have the same value system. Some people really do want a mile when you give them an inch. Learn to recognize early on those employees who embrace this philosophy.

Address problems now
If an employee or two aren't responding to the environment you create, ignoring it and hoping they will fall in line is a doomed strategy. Call in the troubled workers, one at a time, and let them know their behavior is unacceptable and is not without consequences. Make public the standards of behavior that you expect. If necessary, put the employees on probation for 30 days while you gauge their responses. Whatever you do, highlight the seriousness of the situation and the actions you will take if the situation is not remedied.

Dealing with employee issues is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership.

Don’t generalize
The biggest mistake leaders make with performance problems is they throw the baby out with the bath water. If the kinder, gentler management style yielded a few bad eggs, they assume the entire staff may respond the same way. This causes management to write policy after policy to guide behaviors.

I am not suggesting that your practice does not need policies and practices for employees, but be careful how far you go. Employee conscience usually sets a higher standard than any standard you mandate. Performance problems are individual issues; so they most often should be addressed individually.

Embrace the leadership role
Dealing with employee issues is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. Many of us see these performance issues as headaches. Instead of dealing with them, we ask ourselves, “Why is this employee such a problem? I would never act this way.”

These issues may be headaches, but they are also opportunities. As a leader it is your job to raise the bar on behavior. Savor the role you have to rid the ship of troubled workers. Once you get some successes under your belt, you will realize that a little cruelty today may just provide the long-term kindness troubled workers need.

Having said that, don’t look to me for answers when your better half asks you one lonely evening: “Am I getting fatter?”

Note: This is an abridged version of an article originally titled “When It's Cruel to Be Kind.”

Karl Walinskas, an expert on organizational communications, helps businesses and individuals communicate more effectively through his company, The Speaking Connection. He may be reached at 570-675-8956 or through his website at


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