Leadership Lessons from a 9-Year-Old Shoplifter

I’ll be honest, I was pretty shocked and disheartened when I found stolen merchandise in my 9-year-old son’s room. On one hand, I was slightly amused that his sticky fingers latched onto two travel-sized hand sanitizers from Bath & Body Works.

At least the kid appreciates cleanliness.

On the other hand, I was disappointed that my flesh and blood had committed a crime…and he’s only 9! What made it worse was the fact that I started my career as a police officer. Oh, the irony!

I know I’m not probably not alone here – there’s millions of parents out there dealing with the same issue.

So, we can respond to this situation in many different ways, right? Get angry and act punitively…pile on heavy doses of guilt and shame…or see the instance as an opportunity to talk about choices and consequences. Each response communicates a message to our kids, and they will learn something. The question is what.

The Response

  • If parents respond in anger, children simply learn that certain behaviors trigger an angry response. That doesn’t mean the behavior goes away. The kid concludes that there’s no reason to stop (assuming there’s a payoff), if they can hide it from their parent.
  • If parents respond by casting guilt or shame, children learn that their self worth is somehow tied to their parent’s feelings. It’s as if the child becomes responsible for managing the parent’s emotions through his or her behavior, and this can turn into a highly-manipulative and codependent relationship.
  • If parents respond by educating the child about consequences, children learn about the effects of their behaviors without punitive or manipulative distractions. Expectations can help the process by helping children understand what’s “in bounds” and what’s not (from the parent’s perspective). This approach also allows the child to use logic in thinking through future decisions independently – instead of being manipulated into a specific course of action by fear or guilt.

Now, there’s a direct connection between these types of parent-child interactions and the ones between you and your team at work.

But let me first say: you’re not a parent at work.

You’re a manager, a boss, or whatever your job title reads that places you in a leadership position. As a leader, it’s your job to facilitate the work of the people who report to you. Assigning work, ensuring it gets done correctly, managing a process for workflow, and providing feedback requires a high degree of communication and coordination regardless of your industry.

How you do this, though, is what ultimately determines your degree of success (or failure) when it comes to the quality of your internal communication.

If you respond in anger when something disappoints you…

…the team learns to hide behavior from you if there’s a payoff for them. Sound similar to the parenting approach I described above? It’s the same thing. I’ve seen it before.

A team member charges a happy hour bill to the company card. The boss blows up and lectures the team as a whole. The team member, knowing everyone enjoyed the happy hour, learns to bury the booze charges next time by labeling the expense as a “client dinner” or something similar.

Is it dishonest? Yup.

Is it stealing? You bet.

My son stole something, too, but blowing up at him won’t necessarily stop the behavior if the payoff is greater than the risk. The same is true for your team members. Anger is the poorest form of communication and the least effective for long-term health. It instills a culture of fear. It forces your team members to devise clever ways to keep you out of the loop because they always feel like they’re walking on eggshells. It’s not helpful.

If you respond by casting guilt or shame when things don’t go as planned…

..the team’s focus is redirected less to improving on past performance and more to managing your feelings. They don’t want to feel the weight of your finger-wagging lectures in the future.

This results in inauthentic communication from the team to the leader. Every conversation with the boss is adorned with rainbows and unicorn glitter. The message is that the world is always at peace (even if there’s a bonfire raging in the copy room). The end result is a communication strategy that’s rooted in manipulation. Not good.

 

If you educate your team about expectations and the consequences of poor performance…

…team members learn the cause and effect of their behaviors without being motivated by fear and manipulation. Setting expectations and defining consequences helps team members learn boundaries. When clear boundaries are set, people are free to use their own minds to make decisions instead of being manipulated into a course of action by fear or guilt. This instills a sense of duty and ownership.

Much better.

Practice the Right Response

When you talk to the team about an upcoming project or debrief one that you just completed, is your focus on educating the group? Do you believe that they’ll only hear you if you yell? Do you think things won’t sink in unless they feel guilty about the times they fell short? Let me be very clear:

If you think the best way to motivate your team is by instilling fear, you’re doing it wrong.

If you think that guilt trips motivate people in a healthy way, you’re doing it wrong.

The reason your internal communication stinks is because you aren’t educating your team without fear or manipulation clouding the picture. If you want genuine behavior change, your team (just like my son) must believe that changing behavior benefits them first and you second. When you load them with fear or guilt, they only do things differently to benefit you and your feelings. This isn’t how you help your team develop and grow.

So, how do you make the shift to educating if your instinct is tirades or guilt-tripping?

  1. Start with “Why?”
    Ask yourself why you typically respond to adversity or poor performance with an emotionally-charged reaction. Answer the first “Why?” and then ask it again. This will help you dig deeper into the real reason your tendency is to communicate with anger or guilt. Most of the time it’s because you’re not slowing down enough to get past your own emotions before you open your mouth.
  2. Find and Define Your Expectations
    After digging into the “Why?” a few levels deep, you may find that the reason you responded emotionally to something that happened was because it didn’t align with your expectations. Define those expectations for yourself and think about how you would feel and react if those expectations were met. Would your attitude toward your team change? Would you communicate a different message to them in a different way?
  3. Vocalize Them
    Once you define your expectations in your own mind, vocalize them to your team. Keep in mind that your team will be on guard if your tendency is to yell at them or shame them. If that’s the case, you need to start by apologizing for your past behavior. It’ll go a long way. Then, list your expectations on the whiteboard in your conference room. Explain how you learned that failure to meet these expectations got under your skin in the past. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s human.
  4. Rinse and Repeat
    When you find yourself slipping back into your old ways, do steps 1-3 again. Trace your frustrations back to their root causes and re-define expectations for the team. They’ll need the reminders from time to time.

We’re all human. We fail.

I learned that when my 9-year-old failed to meet my expectations with his behavior. Part of me felt angry. Part of me felt very disappointed. Those feelings could have led me to respond emotionally, but I knew that my son understood our family’s expectations for behavior.

I was able to use those expectations (and his failure to meet them) as a launching point to teach an important life lesson. I’ll spare you the details, but I never raised my voice or shamed him while handling the situation.

And at the end of the day I felt successful as a parent. I just hope I’m mature enough as a leader in business to act the same way when one of my team members fall short of expectations.