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Not the Best Firm to Work For

Dear Dave
Our engineering firm is a mess. Morale around this place is about as low as it can go. We have two principals who bless their hearts, are two of the kindest, most generous people you would ever want to meet. The question is, is it possible to be too kind? They go out of their way to avoid confrontation with the staff to the point that staff pretty much does what it wants, how it wants, and when it wants to. The principals will eventually address issues, but often by the time they do a lot of needless damage has been done. The office atmosphere is very uncomfortable with a clear lack of discipline and accountability. There are so many low-key conflicts between various cliques formed amongst the staff that it seems like junior high school all over again. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear FR
Sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. The conditions you’ve described are the direct result of your principals’ having abdicated their leadership and management responsibility and having done so created a serious void. By ducking their duties and trying to keep everyone happy, they’ve ended up with an extremely toxic environment which is probably as disturbing to them as it is to you.

It is one thing to try to create a pleasant and low-stress workplace, but insufficient management and control has resulted in a vacuum filled by the individuals in your firm each setting their own priorities, expectations and rules. In this age of employee empowerment, giving people lots of space is in vogue, but you can go too far. Nuclear energy is a good thing too…as long as it is contained and controlled.

Leadership by its very nature requires staying a step ahead of the firm and the people, not losing control and forever chasing along behind it. Staying ahead means management charts the course, makes the rules and sets the priorities… not the staff. Effective leadership is keeping people on their toes, leaning forward and forever trying to reach and live up to the standards of performance and contribution expectations that have been clearly set for them to achieve. Staff needs to be properly focused and challenged at all times.

Assuming your principals are willing and capable of turning things around, getting back in control will need to done patiently and gradually. Management will need to pick their battles carefully. The behaviors that exist are probably pretty deeply ingrained, so yanking back on the reins too quickly in the attempt to reverse course can stress out the organization and result in even more problems than you have now.

Once leadership comes to agreement on what changes are to be made and establishes the order in which they will be undertaken, communicate the changes to all involved in the clearest terms possible. In the spirit of openness, entertain questions and discussions, but at some point, end the discussion and insist on compliance.

The key is to stay the course and not buckle. There can no backing down. Any out-of-bounds behavior must be immediately addressed and corrected. Some staff will purposely test the new rules just to see if management is really serious. Others will innocently screw-up out of habit. Either way, the first couple of times an exception occurs, be sure to call it out, but give the transgressors the benefit of the doubt. If non-compliance persists, the owners will need to ratchet up their response until they’ve convinced people they are serious and not going to cave in—up to and including letting those individuals go who either cannot or will not understand that there is a new sheriff in town.


Wahby and Associates