Workplace Wisdom

This Is Why Being an Employee Is Not Like Being a Navy SEAL

An up-and-coming manager at one of my client companies asked for help with a longstanding employee. Over time, his behavior had become problematic for other employees — and sometimes for customers as well.

In addition to making more and more mistakes and creating conflict with co-workers, he had begun ignoring his manager’s feedback and doing juvenile things like claiming he didn’t have time to get his work done while blatantly engaging in social media and other online diversions during work hours.

The manager and I talked about the typical approaches: finding out what was going on with him, including whether something had changed in his life, setting clear parameters for both work delivery and conduct, and how to involve HR. But the manager was hesitant to apply consequences. This was less the result of being conflict averse, and more due to a sense of community gone awry, because the organization’s culture espouses “taking care of our team, working to make everyone successful here, and everyone moving forward together.”

Benevolent Employment Doesn’t Guarantee Performance

In cultures that pride themselves on promoting from within, advocating a kind of family feeling, or putting a premium on loyalty, it can be tough to discipline (or eventually terminate) staff — even when employees have stopped performing or just aren’t working out. This tension is exacerbated if the employee has personal problems, or their close friends or family members are also employees, or they improve their performance just a little but not enough.

Most employment is based on a premise of satisfactory performance for satisfactory compensation. If the organization is delivering on its half of the deal, it has both a right and responsibility to expect the employee to deliver on their half.

But sometimes leadership will confuse these premises and create a kind of psychological imperative to keep the team together, as if it would be wrong to ever separate anyone from the team. Certainly it’s beneficial to have a strongly bonded team. But keeping everyone together may be detrimental to the actual mission, because regular employment is not like being a member of the Navy SEALs.

Sometimes Teamwork Means No Weak Links

Navy SEALs are elite, special-operations warriors. They’re known for such sayings as “The only easy day was yesterday” and “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” But the SEALs are perhaps best known for their commitment to “leave no man behind,” a premise that was tested recently by aerial drone footage showing that a SEAL who had been presumed dead in fact remained alive long enough to continue the mission before succumbing to his wounds.

But while regular employment often embraces team commitment, especially among founding teams and family businesses, it often neglects some of the other required aspects of SEALdom. For instance, SEALs are only selected after exacting physical and mental testing. Their stringent training is meant to develop them both individually and as a team, and is specifically engineered to ensure that anyone who can’t sustain the rigors of training, and therefore the eventual missions, will wash out.

Most employers are nowhere near as discerning as the SEALs, or nearly as clear about the need to wash people out. Once we’ve selected our employees, it’s all too common for us civilians to do almost everything in our power to keep them on the team, even if we wind up limping along because they’re not that great at their jobs.

Taking One for the Team Can Mean Terminating

It’s very hard to give up on an employee you’ve worked to train, manage, and when necessary, salvage. But if employees do not perform to standard after receiving appropriate support — and if they turn away customers and alienate colleagues — it becomes a leadership responsibility to make the hard choice: to impose discipline and, when necessary, terminate an employee. Sometimes this must be done not in spite of the team ethos, but for the sake of it.

Onward and upward,

LK

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