A Leadership Horror Story

Every Saturday usually begins the same way for me. I get up, head to Starbucks and have a cup of coffee while reviewing the past week’s results and the next week’s goals. Debriefing the week and reflecting upon what changes I need to make is highly productive time for me. However, my regular routine this last Saturday was disrupted by a horrifying scenario playing out before me.

Leadership and TerminationTHE SCENARIO: “Good morning, you’re fired!”

I noticed a woman across from me that seemed to be waiting for someone, but otherwise enjoying her morning. Ten minutes later, the man wearing a tie arrives and motions for her to join him at a table rather than the more comfortable chairs in which she was already sitting. In an instant, I saw from his demeanor that something wasn’t right. I sensed a mismatch between her expectations and his actions.

With no coffee order of his own (Clue #1), he sat down across the table from this woman and spoke in a low voice (Clue #2), all the while averting eye contact with her (Clue #3). His questions were seemingly aimed at the table, since that was where he was looking. She gave explanations for each of the things he asked about. Explanations wouldn’t matter. His position was resolute. The outcome was predetermined. Her employment had just ended right in front of me at 7:43 am.

She did her best to hold it together in such a public setting, although a few defiant tears refused to be held captive. That first tear must have been the leader, because it led a number of others right down the side of her cheeks. She was completely caught off guard. Apart from her coffee, she had nothing to dab her eyes with. He continued to speak to the table to tell her no need to come back to work on Monday.

She was devastated. I was nauseated from the recklessness and thoughtlessness of this leader’s actions.

He grabbed his backpack and left without speaking another word. His job was done. It was at this point that I was able to articulate in my own mind my observations of his demeanor when he walked in. I concluded that what bothered him was not how the news would affect this woman. He appeared to be bothered more by how it affected his weekend.

As leaders, what can we learn from this example?

DEBRIEF: Lessons for Leaders Delivering Difficult Messages

  • Be Predictable. Staff members should never be surprised when it comes to their performance. Provide consistent feedback. Care enough to share.
  • Be Discrete. The old adage to ‘Praise in public and correct in private’ is good advice. With corrective actions or terminations, choose the location wisely as the discussion should never be on display for outsiders to observe.
  • Be Present. Regardless of circumstances, when having a conversation, be completely present and engaged in the conversation. Staff should expect that from leaders.
  • Be Professional. No matter how difficult the message is for you to deliver, it is worse for the person receiving the news. Don’t portray yourself as the victim.
  • Be Honoring. Treat people with dignity and look them squarely in the eyes when communicating. Averting eye contact is dishonoring and suggests there is something in which to be ashamed (e.g., Surprising a person with a termination for performance).
  • Be Thoughtful. When delivering any message that may evoke emotion, be thoughtful by being prepared. Have tissues on hand. You may also consider having your discussion in a different meeting room to avoid parading your upset staff member in front of their peers after the discussion.
  • Be Careful. Most of us are not immune to having our own leader, CEO, board members, etc. approach us with a difficult message. Therefore, remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Terminations and disciplinary actions happen for legitimate reasons. They can…and should always be…constructive in nature, never destructive. Practicing these characteristics in our daily demonstrations of Leadership can help to ensure we are constructive in our approach. Let’s all make sure we avoid creating this destructive horror for others.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.