Cowardice at Work

This is a tale of two higher level managers — the first all but terminated, shuffled into a secondary job without an explanation except the unstated, very real message, “your time is up — find something else.” By comparison the second is offered a dignified opportunity to leave the organization with significant feedback and as a matter of personal choice.

You may ask, well, what’s the difference? In either case someone is told they no longer fit, and must exit!

Yes, that’s true and I believe there is — or can be — a vast difference. If I am guilty here of over-simplication, then see this merely as poles of a continuum, or a basic template with infinite variations where life is not very clean. Surely there are cases and exceptions.

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In the first situation, the organization skirts an ethical edge, making it clear by its absence that meaningful feedback is unnecessary and that “we can do as we wish with people.” Those responsible for the termination cover their tracks, move toward a rapid exit for the person: “we are announcing this today” and may prevaricate, “he chose to leave the role,” although this is not confirmed by the person at all. Those responsible may believe this is the smart or even macho way to manage. They may rationalize that “at this level” you are just supposed to know how well you are doing.

Mostly, however, it’s just not thought out and is without any grace. The person terminated becomes an object in a process to hurry them away. Without sensitive leadership, the departee does leave, if not today then tomorrow — with a bucket of disgrace and two buckets of anger.

In the second situation, the individual is treated with respect. “The fit is no longer there” but also, “here’s why” with distinctive examples, and also “here are some options.” The person is given time to think it over. If the person chooses an exit over other alternatives, say intensive coaching or a move to a different position, there’s cooperative planning. “How would you like to frame this?” “How do we time this?” Then a congruent set of messages goes out to people. Nothing is hidden. If the person says he or she is withdrawing from a job based on feedback, then that’s the truth. There’s an effort to be gracious about a hard circumstance that must be navigated by everyone. The person has a chance to maintain his or her integrity, personal courage and class. People respect that.

One could say the first manager lives in a tougher world, but in my experience, it’s actually just a more fearful one, with the authorities operating from not-so-subtle cowardice, which leads to deception, sideways messages, conspiring, and brittle communications. Often there’s unconsciousness and denial that all this is happening in the fishbowl of the broader organization. Everyone is watching, of course — to see what could happen to them. One has to ask, what would be the point of all the money spent on recognition and engagement programs in an environment that takes no care with people when the going gets really tough?

The second manager’s exit can cause tension, too, but that tension is at least discussable. And that’s a key difference — those responsible for the decision chose to tell the truth to a person they care about. They didn’t hide in political woods. They didn’t game their own system, the one for which they are chief stewards. They didn’t game the person. This isn’t to say it’s easy, or that the response will universally be gracious in return, but it helps a whole lot to know genuine care was taken and expressed, for the person and also for the observers — all the rest of us.

What more is there to say of such things? There’s nothing macho about the surprise hit and run termination. It’s an act of weakness, convenience and fear — and it shows.

It’s a mark of managers or executives who should be asking themselves deeper questions about their own leadership — and whether, they, too, actually fit the role.


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