It Isn’t Them. It’s You.

The other day I retweeted a friend’s blog post before reading it, and I’d like to apologize. Not because it offended anyone: I didn’t receive any complaints, and a few folks even shared it with their networks. No, I’d like to apologize because the post offended me. I let myself down, sharing something that flies in the face of everything I believe in as a leader.

The topic was employee monitoring software. Basically, the article discussed different options out there for companies to spy on their employees; to make sure their workers are doing what they’re tasked with doing, at least when they are using their company computer. The article actually used the term “spying on” without the least hint of irony.

Here’s my thing: if your people are not getting their assigned work done, that is indeed a problem. But if you need to spy on them to see if they’re doing it? There is a far deeper problem indeed. Two, actually.

The first problem is simple: why doesn’t their manager or peer leader know they aren’t doing their work? That’s simple, it seems. If you’re a manager and you don’t know what your people are doing, leave your office and spend some time with them! (Indeed, why are you holed up there in the first place? What is so important in your office that it should take you away from face time with your team?)

The second problem is far deeper, and for this one you’ll need a mirror, not a program: you’re spying on your people! What on earth…? If you run a company where management thinks spying on employees is appropriate, then yes, you probably have employees who cannot be trusted. You see, the ones who can be trusted pick up the vibe that you have a very dysfunctional workplace, and they don’t want to work at your firm in the first place. That leaves you with the leftovers.

Early in my career, I picked up a bit of insight I’ve carried near and dear to my heart ever since:

A company with a union probably deserves a union.

Think about that for a minute; really let it sink in. Employees don’t unionize because they’re happy with their management, do they? Nearly without exception, they form or join a union as a defense against adversarial management. So management brings unionization on itself. You get the partners you deserve.

We can generalize this rule beyond just unions, to leadership – and followership – in general. So, let’s wrap this post up with a few take-aways.

  1. A company that spies on its employees probably has employees who can’t be trusted.
  2. A company with high employee turnover doesn’t have a turnover problem, it has a leadership problem.
  3. If your company cannot find quality applicants, look in the mirror, not the talent pool.

These truths come from the same source: we attract who we deserve. If your people suck, guess what?

…And one final note: Some people are just bad workers, and there’s no fixing that. It’s them, not you. But for 80% of lousy, untrustworthy, lazy employees, there is a context out there in which they’ll flourish. If that context isn’t your company… well, four times out of five, don’t blame them.

Sorry, folks, but it had to be said.

Art by  Surian Soosay

Keynote speaker. Author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. Three-time CEO. Chairman and Founder of Switch and Shift. Ted Coiné is one of the most influential business experts on the Web, top-ranked by Forbes, Inc., SAP Business Innovation, and Huffington Post for his leadership, customer experience, and social media influence. Ted consults with owners, CEOs and boards of directors on making their companies more competitive by making them more human-focused. He and his family live in Naples, Florida.

  • reply Britany Wallace ,


    I am so glad someone finally said this! It needed to be said and you had the courage to put it in writing. I commend you and applaud your efforts. I could go on and on, but that is not my point.

    I just cannot say thank you enough for bringing this to light. Sometimes people just need to hear things that they don’t want to hear.


    • reply Alan Kay ,

      I think it’s a productivity issue. Motivating workers to do a good job has always been the responsibility of management. At the extreme, leaders who demonize workers, e.g., unions, should be allowed to work in an environment like the US Marines where its all about ‘us’ not ‘me’. Off course, some union leaders might need to do the same.

      In our economy, it’s relatively simple. Productivity matters throughout the organization. This includes the leadership. If the leader isn’t getting support from staff on the goals, the leader doesn’t deserve their support.

      About spying…I wouldn’t worry too much about your friend. These are short-term measures that pay back with further declines in productivity. Do you remember ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap of Sunbeam? He looked good to some with his tough-guy act until the board realized how much he was costing the company.

      • reply Pal ,

        I don’t know how many times I have heard the phrase. “They did not perform as expected anyways, so I am glad they quit.” Looking in the mirror and telling themselves that they could have done a better job, blaming themselves for poor leadership seems to be so hard to do. It is about pride, it only makes them look bad. Excellent issue to address. More people that need to read this. Shared!

        • reply Amy McCloskey Tobin ,

          Great post Ted – especially the early hint about not RT-ing what you haven’t read.

          You are 100% right about where the problem lies if you have lots of problem employees -not with THEM. I used to be a wholesale rep. and ran into a lot of business owners who didn’t allow their employees to know TRUE cost. The didn’t want them to know how much money they made on each job. In each one of those cases the employee was getting the bad end of the deal.

          • reply Alan Kay ,

            Maybe I should add that some of the worst offenders who refuse rehabilitation (alignment with the business goals, accountable for their performance, etc.), should be allowed as I like to put it, ‘be successful somewhere else’. While as much as something like 2-3% of our population have sociopathic tendencies, there’s a also percentage who don’t get it about the difference between accountability and entitlement. And, they’ll never get it.

            That said, as they depart three things need to happen: 1. It’s clear to everyone why they are leaving, 2. HR or whoever develops hiring practices builds a strategy that aligns with not just the vision and values, but also the business plan and the brand strategy, 3. An employee sustainability plan is deployed to ensure employee experience measurement and personal development (make sure the passengers are both enjoying the cruise and are accountable for their own growth).

            This takes a lot of resources, but it has payback. The CEO should be involved in all three. That’s where enlightened leadership leads to the productivity I suggest we all focus on.

            • reply Lanese Russell ,

              Getting the job done in the work place means that you are given the appropriate directions or have read the directions given and understand the requirements even if changes occur work should be completed. in the working environment is work really ever done.

              • reply Why Your Employees Hate Your CRM | Switch and Shift ,

                [...] The first four questions are all getting at the same thing: many employers use CRM to ride their staff. In these companies, it isn’t a job-enabler; it’s an employee torture device. If you want to know why your staff doesn’t love your CRM and adore you for providing it, this is probably why. [...]

                • reply Ted Coine ,

                  Thank you Britany! It’s amazing to me how some leaders regard their employees as untrustworthy children who need tight supervision to keep them from goofing off. Whenever I find someone in a leadership position who thinks this way, I can’t help but wonder, “What happened to you early in life that made you this way?”

                  • reply Ted Coine ,

                    I agree, Alan: there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about a union, just as there is nothing by definition good or bad about management. My father represented management in several large strikes in his career, and his stories always fascinated me. Fair but firm was his guiding principle. One of my dearest friends here in Naples, Bernie, began his career as a union organizer in the forties and fifties. Two utterly different perspectives, to be sure.

                    …Except for one thing. These groups deserved each other. You might argue it’s a chicken and egg thing, but I beg to differ. Where management leads through morale, workers are disinclined to unionized. Jim Collins has a great example of that in “Good To Great” with Nucor.

                    One example of management actually benefitting from unionization is Southwest Airlines. If you have a chance, pick up “The Southwest Airlines Way.” In that industry, unions are just a part of the environment – a lot of unions. Southwest has figured out how to work with the unions rather than against them. It’s an uplifting example for us all.

                    • reply Ted Coine ,

                      Thanks for your input, Amy! Excellent example.

                      Here’s the thing with employers obscuring their books from their employees: we humans are endlessly curious and our very nature demands a complete narrative. When information is lacking, we fill in those missing facts using our imaginations and rumor, rather than true fact.

                      I cannot tell you how many situations I’ve observed where the rumor mill has the facts wildly distorted, always in a way that shines the worst possible light on management. Your “friend” would have been best served by managing with open books. When times are good that means huge profit margins are exposed, so the leader has to be prepared for the uncomfortable conversations that can bring (“You can’t afford to give me a raise? Really? No, really?”).

                      But open books are the leader’s dearest friends when times get tough. “You all know the situation, folks,” she can say. “We’ve hit a rough patch. I’ve tightened my own belt. We need your help in trimming costs, or we’re all in trouble. Can I count on you?”

                      Secrecy? That’s so 20th Century. I really don’t think it will be sustainable in the future anyway. Best to lead openly before it’s forced upon us, no?

                      • reply Ted Coine ,

                        Alan, I love the plan you outline. I hope I don’t sound like too much of a fanboy when I say, Shawn and I couldn’t be luckier to have you as a regular commenter and sometime contributor to Switch and Shift.

                        I am all about hiring adults and expecting them to act as such. I’m not talking about age, but attitude. If your employees need motivation from outside, maybe you’ve got the wrong employees.

                        …Give it to them anyway, though! A leader is a coach, and as such she must stoke the fires of morale on a continual basis. If that sounds contradictory, then the reader has not led actual humans before. Time to close out of your spreadsheets and take your staff to lunch.

                        • reply Ted Coine ,

                          Thanks Pal! As I said, sometimes the person doesn’t fit the role, or the culture. Sometimes. Often the person doesn’t fit the leader, and that may well be the leader’s fault, not the employee.

                          I’ve seen sales managers churn through team members, firing anyone who doesn’t perform even for a month or a quarter, no matter how great their track record was in previous months. The results-orientation of the sales function (after all, why does a company have a sales department?) seems to encourage this practice. Often, a sales manager can last a long time by “trading up” as his standard operating procedure.

                          …Humans of superior talent are not a limitless resource. That means this is not a sustainable practice. Sooner or later (and unfortunately, often later in many companies) this practice catches up with the sales manager.

                          • reply Ted Coine ,

                            Well, Lanese, I’m not sure I understand your entire meaning, but I will say this: we are all at work to accomplish… um… our work! The best-managed projects have clear expectations and communication is a continuous two-way dialogue, so that when change is introduced, the worker can turn on a dime to accommodate that change. Unfortunately, many projects are not “best-run.”

                            If change is introduced so often that no tangible work can get done? That’s bad leadership and incompetent management. It’s demoralizing to the worker (and often to the mid- and front-line managers). Talent will leave as a result.

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