Ignoring a wrong behavior is not much different than endorsing it

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on September 7, 2011 · 4 comments

What do you do when you see one of your directs exhibiting the wrong behavior? Do you react? Do you pretend you didn’t notice? Do you call it out immediately?

There is a common phrase, which I don’t is well understood, that states: “praise publicly, criticized privately.” While I do believe that actual criticism should be private, I do not mean that correcting wrong behaviors should be as well. Here’s why:

Every time that you see the wrong behavior and ignore it, as a leader that is an implied endorsement of that same behavior.

This obviously is not the intention of the leader, but we must view our actions through the lens of the observer. In the observer;s mind, seeing and ignoring is equivalent to an endorsement.

Correcting behavior

Tim McMahon, lean thinker and blogger at A Lean Journey, lives by the mantra “you deserve what you tolerate.” He adds:

In other words, if you notice something wrong and you don’t stop and say something then you are essentially condoning it. In a lean environment we strive for a respectful workplace, one where we manage our interpersonal relationships in a positive manner. In a respectful workplace concerns, criticisms, and conflicts are openly raised, are focused on methods for accomplishing the work, and are discussed in a respectful manner.

Tim’s point emphasizes that while criticism in public can often be deemed as a lack of respect for people, ignoring wrong behaviors is a much larger violation of lack of respect for people.

Shawn Patterson, a leader at DTE Energy and a guest blogger here, has this to add to help deliver the feedback in the correct manner:

Leaders need to have the situational awareness to notice moments where a lack of response implicitly endorses behaviors counter to our value system. One way to make the delivery of criticism easier and reduce the sting for the receiver is to focus on the specific behavior, and avoid the judgement of the person and their personal values. 

What does this leadership behavior look like? This can be picking up trash that you see left on the ground, but also commenting to those walking in front of you that they should have done the same. This is asking somebody not to guess about the cause of the problem when trying to contribute during a meeting.

Do you strike a balance between avoiding criticism and unintentionally endorsing wrong behaviors?

1 Mark R Hamel September 7, 2011 at 9:15 am

Hi Jamie,

Insightful post! As I was reading it, I was struck by the notion that “you get what you tolerate” works for both lean and raising children. But, then again, that makes total sense – we’re talking leadership and with that, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

2 Matt Wrye September 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm

You are right on target with this point. Ignoring the behavior is the same as saying it is alright. I have seen many times when a new manager comes in and disciplines an employee that has been getting away with the wrong behavior and the other employees are thankful the manager did correct them. It is shows respect to the others that you won’t let the wrong behavior go on and everyone should be following the same rules and behaviors.

3 Tim McMahon September 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Great post Jamie. Thanks for including me. Mark raising kids provide great lessons in leadership. Should be a requirement for CEO’s. Matt, respect for people is more than just being nice. Coaching is such an important role. Like raising kids or developing players (like a coach) teaching from your own example is so important. Good leaders understand that and make it part of their way.

4 Reina April 21, 2012 at 9:41 am

Exactly. Ignoring a wrong behavior is not much different than endorsing it. It is also similar to being neutral in a situation. It isn’t different from choosing the side of the oppressor. What I mean is that one shouldn’t just ignore things when he knows these are wrong. Even if these things don’t actually affect your life, it still could affect another person.

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