Tough Love in the Workplace

Risch Results
Blog 5: Tough Love in the Workplace
V3, 5.14.15

Tough Love in the WorkplacePeople around the nation applauded when a Baltimore mother was caught on video publically slapping her son, who she caught rioting and hurling rocks at police officers during the city-wide unrest last month.

The act sent not only a parental message of zero tolerance, but it also inspired me to think about the importance of tough love. While condoning violence by becoming violent is counter-productive (although it would appear that the Baltimore mother needed to act aggressively to get her son’s attention), it is this very notion that being strong, strict, and forceful could actually be a productive way to manage employees.

No, I’m not saying managers should slap their subordinates. I’m not equating the Baltimore mom’s literal actions to supervisory rights. But what I am saying is that delivering the truth to employees—the tough and ugly—can often be a smart strategy for engagement, loyalty, growth, and retention.

As a professional recruiter, I know that employees want the truth. I also know that managers want to tell them the truth, but they often don’t have the necessary skills for delivering that truth in an honest, professional manner. There is value in the tough love strategy… you just need to know how to approach it. A tough love strategy can be a way to fix an employee problem today, and foster company loyalty so that he or she will want to stay.

Manager Mindset

There has long been a debate as to whether or not a soft approach is better than a hard approach when managing and motivating employees. Surely you can recall a time in your own career when you worked with a no-nonsense manager. Looking back, did his or her approach make you a better, more versatile professional? Most professionals I know will say yes.

“The Fine Art of Tough Love,” an article published a couple years ago in Harvard Business Review discusses the idea that executives can learn a thing or two from old-school strict school teachers. The article’s author says today’s employees want tough love so they can strive for higher standards and better performance. With tough love, the end justifies the means.

While no strategy is ever absolute, I know there are times when an employee needs to be “shocked” out of bad performance through honest, straightforward feedback. For this strategy to work, the time must be right, the situation and environment must be safe, and the employee must be treated fairly. There are effective and ineffective ways to approach an employee’s performance. In an e-book from Pace Staffing called, “Tough Love, the good manager’s guide for delivering bad news in a performance review,” the writers suggest that before the review begins, managers must make sure they have all of the available information to present an objective picture of the situation, and come prepared with proper documentation. The review should be a private meeting between the manager and employee, and let the employee speak first about his or her performance, they recommend. Keep the tone of the conversation professional and fact based—and start off with a positive accomplishment or success.

As you conduct the review, the manager should be sure to be specific about what needs to be remedied, criticizing the behavior, not the person.. Present the evidence and then pose solutions. Finally, set goals and measurements for success so you can help the employee strive for improvement, and then gauge the progress. (For a detailed step-by-step account of how to handle the review process, download Pace Staffing’s e-book here.)

Tough love can work, and it does for companies of all sizes and industries. Several years ago, Netflix got a lot of press for its stance on workplace tough love. As this article explains, Netflix has a zero tolerance policy for poor performance and rewards its employees with great pay. This honest, straightforward, no beating-around-the-bush approach may not be right for every employee, but it is right for some.

So look at tough love as another tool for employee motivation and retention. There’s never a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to employees, but tough love can be the answer to getting the results your business needs and keeping the employees you value.

Risch Results is one of Dallas’ top executive search firms for executive management, manufacturing, and financial services talent. Learn more about how Risch Results can help with your talent needs at RischResults.com or 972.839.9447.   ###

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