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Punishing Cheaters

There are high profile cheaters in the news from time to time. Bernie Madoff certainly comes to mind and everyone had an opinion about how much punishment he should receive, including several very creative punishments that won’t be mentioned here.

It’s so easy to point a finger at the Madoff’s of the world. They are high profile and easy to despise. Beware! There are cheaters much closer to home and someone in your organization knows they’re cheating. So why does no one raise a ruckus?

Maybe the cheaters are nice people. Maybe no one wants to rock the boat. Maybe the leader is conflict averse. Maybe the company is willing to trade values for numbers. Organizational cheaters can include:

  • People who put in less than a full day’s work for a full day’s pay
  • People who slash and burn organizational values and continue to work for us because they make their numbers
  • People who charm their boss into thinking they are putting in a full day’s work
  • The Leaders who don’t step up and deal with the above.

The Leaders!?! Yup. Managing performance is in the job description. I don’t know a single leader who wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Gee, I hope I have to address poor performance today!” Good leaders wake up and say, “I’m going to have that performance conversation today for the greater good of the organization.”

Leaders who address cheaters gain respect. Leaders who address cheaters gain respect.

Here’s why: Work is based on human reciprocity. Vastly simplified, that means, “I’ll do work now in exchange for a paycheck you’ll give me later.” Or, “I’ll go the extra mile for you boss. Some time down the road you can help me out with career advice, or a good assignment or whatever.”

Cheaters break down the reciprocity system. Let’s say “A” does a half day’s work for a full day’s pay. “B” “C” and “D” the co-workers know it. They start to think—“Hey, that’s not fair! We’re picking up the slack. How come “A” gets as much money as we do?” If “A” is not confronted, “B” “C” and “D” are likely to get cranky and slack off.

The leader who has a “get on board” conversation with “A” gains respect. The leader who doesn’t loses respect and eventually leadership authority.

Research from game theory shows that the person who addresses the cheater is perceived to be the leader, even if they don’t have the title. So, if “C” take “A” aside and confronts the behavior, “C” becomes the de facto leader and the titled leader loses face.

That’s why all levels of leadership from team leads through the CEO must address cheaters to be perceived as effective leaders.

Join the dialogue on leadership accountability.

Expanded information, case studies, business applications and missed opportunities from the real world that you can use to further leadership development in your organization, is in our quarterly journal Leaders’ Work. For a sample issue, click here