Leadership and Public Firings – Really?

poor leadershipAOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong held a company meeting with 1,000 employees in attendance last August, during which he publically fired an employee. Bad news for the employee and bad news for Armstrong as someone in the audience recorded it.

Nicholas Carlson writes an in-depth article about “why” this happened giving us some insight into Armstrong’s character and rise to CEO. He describes a charismatic entrepreneurial leader who leveraged opportunities and was able to be successful where others weren’t.

There are always reasons why someone behaves the way they do, but let me be clear, it never excuses bad behavior and this was bad leadership behavior at it’s finest. First of all, the reason for the public firing was that the employee took a picture at a confidential meeting. Is this really a reason for firing an employee? No. Delete the picture.

My guess is this was not the first time Armstrong had exhibited this type of behavior. However, it was the first time it was released to the public on tape. When a leader behaves in this manner on a regular basis, employees become immune to the bad behavior. It becomes the norm. They make excuses to themselves in order to deal with the climate and often look the other way. They tell themselves things like; “in the grand scheme of things at least I have a job,” or, “it’s not really that bad,” or “I can just ignore it, it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” etc. We’ve all said things like this in the presence of truly stunning “lack of leadership” moments.

This type of behavior becomes the culture of a company – a culture of unpredictable leadership, outbursts, erratic behavior and intermittent rewards or punishment. How safe does anyone feel in this environment? How is anyone going to be truly productive not knowing what might happen next? Unpredictable environments do not bring out the best in people. Why would a leader think otherwise?

Knowing what is going to happen, what consequences will transpire from what behaviors makes for a productive culture. Rewards for behaviors, clearly communicated and documented, lead to productive work environments.

They say no one in the AOL company meeting heard a thing after the poor employee was fired and that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wouldn’t have mattered what Armstrong said at that point, because as humans we are empathetic and self-preserving. I’m sure they felt bad for the fired employee and worried whether they might be next. Would you want to be in on someone’s exit interview? No. The other 999 people didn’t want to be either.

Important leadership “note to self” – everything you do and say matters, ALL THE TIME. The reasons for a moment of bad behavior are excuses and do not matter. If disrespectful, demeaning behavior is displayed by you, it will be deemed okay. You will start to see more of it in your managers and leaders. Dysfunction and unproductive behavior will follow. It takes the rare employee who will actually tell you that you behaved badly. If you get that kind of feedback, listen to those individuals, they just displayed the kind of culture you should want.