…or you’ll see a lot more of it!

Have I told you about the time I got fired? I was a 25-year-old hotshot, fighter pilot wannabe stuck in west Texas as an Air Force instructor pilot. I’d had three bosses in 18 months and was still in the process of breaking the new one in.

Yes, this is me.

I was sure he was coming around when he made me his right-hand man, but apparently, he thought being in a leadership position meant I was supposed to be a good example for others. He expected me to – get this – be at work on time.

I mean hey, if it was that important, my other two bosses would have said something. But this guy told me that if I was late again, I’d have to find a new job, and he wasn’t kidding.

After three decades of reflection, I can clearly see my part in the career-altering episode. You have to ask yourself though, “why was I late so often?” The answer is simple:

They let me be.

I tell you this because I was recently facilitating a group discussion for some developing leaders and asked the question, “what are you biggest people-related challenges?” They enthusiastically started describing their problem employees much faster than I could write them on the white board.

I didn’t think “useless, clueless excuse-makers” really got to the heart of the problem, so we drilled down a bit. It turns out they were challenged by people who: didn’t do what they were supposed to do, took advantage of their boss’ good graces, had their priorities wrong and had no sense of urgency, and were dishonest. These people were bad apples who were negatively influencing their co-workers.

Yes, I admitted, those kinds of people can be a challenge, and I asked them why those people had such bad behavior. They couldn’t come up with an answer and were truly taken aback when I pointed out the obvious.

Because they let them.

Oh, the protests! “Not us,” they insisted. “We can’t do anything about it.” “HR won’t let us fire them.” “She’s too good at her job to let go.” “I just have a big heart.” “My predecessor let him get away with it.” “She’s protected because…”

I threw the bullshit flag at them with just a short factual statement: “What you tolerate, you endorse.”

Plain and simple, if you have some bad actors on your team, you have to honestly see the part you’re playing. We can blame HR all we want for restrictive disciplinary policies, but HR also has policies about attendance and integrity. Know the policies and enforce them… or change them. We do a disservice to our good employees when we let bad ones “get away” with bad behavior.

Oh, and if their priorities are screwed up, they’re probably not to blame.

Does that mean everyone’s a nail that needs to be hammered? Of course not. Conventional wisdom may say treat everyone the same, but I’ll throw the BS flag on that, too. I’ve got a twist on the Golden Rule: treat them they way you’d expect to be treated under the same circumstances.

Ask yourself how you’d expect to be treated if you got caught lying to your boss. Or falsifying your timesheet. Or stealing from the company. Or increasing the workload for others because you partied too hard the night before. Or taking the morning off because ‘the company owes you’. You get the idea.

And don’t let the bad actors whine about you letting others get away with the same thing you’re disciplining them for! Simply remind them you’re not there to talk about anyone else’s behavior but theirs.

My mother will tell you that I had a bit of a rebellious streak. I refer to it as ‘a problem with authority’, which probably wasn’t the best character trait to join the military with. Why did I push the envelope my entire career? Because they let me. The military has a tendency to hold the boss responsible for the sins of the soldier/sailor/airman. My early experiences helped me lead those who also had ‘a problem with authority’ and help them back to the road to success, but I certainly came at it from a harder direction than I had to.

I learned to treat performance and behavior problems differently, and while I didn’t have an HR department to intimidate me, I arguably had more procedures and personnel processes to be knowledgeable of and navigate than most corporate firms.

Getting rid of bad behavior isn’t easy, but it’s not rocket surgery either. Tolerate it, and you’ll see more of it. Address it when you see it, and you’ll see less of it. Way back when, I was never concerned about losing my job. That was my error. If your bad actor isn’t concerned about losing their job, that’s on you.

It’s up to you, leaders.

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