Leaders Are What They Tolerate

leaders are what they tolerateRecently, I’ve had several conversations with leaders dealing with performance and behaviors that are out of alignment with the company’s culture and performance standards. The conversation usually starts with “I’m going to go ahead and make an exception this one time.” There are always valid reasons for the exceptions; the employee was having difficulties in their personal life, they are a key employee, the company has no one else to do what they do, this was an aberration, etc. Believe me, I’ve said or heard hundreds of various reasons for abdicating the standards that have been set.

First, let me say that exceptions do happen. Second, they should be very rare.

The problem with making these is that it’s a slippery slope to setting a new standard. This is how cultures and organizations shift into dysfunction without even knowing it. If it’s okay for so and so to do something against the company’s standards and values, why can’t I do it? Legally, you will get yourself on to shaky ground with claims of potential discrimination if you treat people differently. We have to ask ourselves if it was important to name it as a value or standard of behavior, why are we willing to tolerate something less than?

This becomes what we now tolerate, and our values are rendered meaningless. I had an employee who was cheating on his mileage, to the tune of thousands of dollars. When the dispatcher figured it out and brought it to my attention, I was shocked. My first reaction was to say, okay, he’s the only guy I have with certain certifications, so I’ll give him a warning. I called my HR firm and they rightly said, “so it’s okay for employees to steal?” I had to let him go. Had I not, I would have completely made a mockery of our values and standards of behavior – even though it was “inconvenient” to say the least. It was, however, the right thing to do, which has always been a guiding principle for me personally.

Leaders need to be first grounded in their own values and hold fast to that line – then holding others accountable to it as well. No exceptions except in very extreme circumstances and only if it would not change the goalposts for the organization itself. In my example, it was pretty clear what needed to happen. In most, it is much more nuanced, which leads to the culture bleed. As the leader, you are the first line of defense for your own and the company’s values – don’t let anyone change those. You become what you tolerate.