“Tough Love” in the Workplace

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

Frank Sonnenberg wrote a terrific blog post recently on “Tough Love.”  His context was parental responsibility and his descriptions of common scenarios that occur when parents don’t set strong parameters for appropriate behavior would make conscientious parents squirm.  His premise is that if parents don’t set boundaries and hold children accountable for operating within those boundaries, the children don’t learn right and wrong.  They don’t learn how to behave properly, and in turn misbehave.

getting_on_the_same_page_400_clr_12654What do you think?  Does this have relevance to the workplace?  I think that it does.

As leaders, we may have the same reluctance that parents have to set parameters and provide feedback for fear that we will be resented or worse, not liked.  What’s interesting about Sonnenberg’s post, and I believe it works the same for leaders is – being liked isn’t (or shouldn’t be) part of the equation.

The job of the parent – and the leader – is to develop and teach those in our charge the capacity to thrive in the world.

Without parameters, anything goes and chaos follows quickly thereafter.  Chaos is not necessarily bad, so long as it bounces around within approved parameters.  But when there are no parameters, chaos gets ugly.

Take the example of having a project team work on the organizational problem of waste.  The team works for months researching, analyzing and creating a solution that they believe will work and presents it to the executive team for approval.  The solution requires an expense of $250,000.  The executives not only don’t approve the solution, but they chide the project team for suggesting an expensive solution in a slow market.

The problem is, they didn’t set the parameters of expected expense, and in the absence of parameters, and with the objective of “wowing” the executive team, the project team provided a Harvard solution for a community college problem.

On the other hand, the executive team assumed that the team would “get” that the financial situation was not one for major expenditures.

How do you think that the project team felt after presenting their hard work to the executive team?

How do you think that the executive team felt after hearing a solution they’d waited for months to hear, only to find it didn’t meet their expectations?

Is there a lesson we can take from “tough love” in the workplace? 

I believe that there is, and I will take license to use some of the same concepts that Frank Sonnenberg proposed in his blog post.

Nurturing is a” leader’s “responsibility
Leaders have a responsibility for the growth and learning of their teams.  In order to learn and grow, the individuals need guidance, feedback and reinforcement.  The guidance sets the parameters for appropriate behavior, the feedback and reinforcement help maintain the parameters.

The Buck Stops with” the Leader
Sonnenberg reminds parents that not addressing bad behavior is an implicit permission to continue.  It is the same in the workplace.  Employees generally want to do a very good job, but without regular dialogue and guidance, it is easy to miss the mark.

Excuses are no excuse
We in corporate America have gotten into a habit of excusing mistakes, and I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is reluctance to address issues, perhaps it is because leaders today are so busy they don’t have time to talk.  For the most part, an excuse is an assumption that a leader knows why an employee didn’t succeed, and that may very well not be the case.  Having a dialogue about an issue can be an exploration of the root cause, and both parties learn.

Actions must have consequences
In order to learn and grow, employees need to know the parameters within which they may work, and obtain candid and open feedback about their work.  Softening difficult feedback does no one any good and not seeing consequences is a huge missed opportunity to clarify and realign.

I feel a kindred spirit to Frank Sonnenberg.  His writing speaks to a piece of me that feels as if we have lost our resilience and strength because we have been allowed to be less than we can be.  I believe that leaders in our organizations today have, in many ways, abdicated this hugely critical role in developing and growing their employees.  Whether this is due to lack of knowledge or lack of will, I’m not sure but I worry about where we are going when leaders don’t step up to the very important role they hold.

[Many thanks to Frank Sonnenberg for letting me “borrow” his words]


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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