I once hired hired a sales team in New Hampshire to do some work for a company I owned. I flew out there to spend some time with them and watch them operate. 

It was a super hardcore environment--100 percent cold calling, intensely competitive, high stakes. The leader of the team, fittingly enough, was an ex-marine. 

Intelligent and articulate, he ran a tight ship. I got a glimpse of just how tight on my second day, when I witnessed a remarkable exchange between him and a guy whose performance had been suffering.

After calling him out harshly on a few minor infractions, the ex-marine listened as the poor schmo shared a story that would soften a heart of stone. The latter got emotional as he explained that his mother had died unexpectedly, leaving him as the sole caretaker of his ailing grandmother while supporting his girlfriend as she underwent chemo. 

The ex-marine listened patiently. I thought he'd apologize for being a hardass, but I was wrong. Instead, he delivered a calm but profanity-laced warning that the guy should either learn leave his sorrows at the office door or find another job. 

The temptations of being too hard.

I was surprised by the ex-marine's decision. That's not my style at all. At the same time, I understood where he was coming from. Good leadership is a difficult balancing act between hard and soft, and it's tempting to say to hell with it and put all your weight on one side. 

Reasons for being too hard include the following:

  • It allows you to lump all the stresses of running a company into one convenient pile. Angry because your latest round of fundraising isn't going as planned? Take it out on a struggling employee, thus avoiding the delicate emotional labor involved in tailoring a personal, proportionate response to their situation. 
  • Fear is a strong motivator. Your team will avoid cutting corners, missing deadlines, sleeping in, etc. if they see you as a no-nonsense disciplinarian with a short fuse.
  • Kindness and caring are synonymous with vulnerability. Being tough on people means never being disappointed if they fail to live up to your expectations. You can replace them and move on without losing sleep over it. 

The problem with being too hard on folks is that you'll never earn their respect. The fact that they jump when you speak doesn't imply awe or deference; it only means that you've made them jumpy. What now manifests as caution -- they walk on eggshells around you -- will eventually turn into resentment. 

The browbeaten guy from my story responded meekly to the ex-marine, but I guarantee he was inwardly seething, and I wouldn't blame him if he left for greener pastures. The ex-marine should have pulled him aside before the meeting and asked him to account for his behavior in private. He still could have been tough on him if he thought it was necessary; humiliating him in front of his associates destroyed his confidence and lowered team morale simultaneously. 

Before lowering the hammer, follow these steps:

  1. Realize two truths about yourself. The first is that you're the boss--the balance of power is completely in your favor. No matter how sincerely you tell people that they can open up to you about anything, they'll probably hold back.

  2. Understand is that you can't expect an employee to ever be as dedicated to your mission and vision as you are. You're the founder; your company is your baby; your life. It isn't fair to ask others to match your level of passion. You can demand that they give their best, but they'll almost always fall short in comparison.

  3. Obtain all the inside information you can. If someone is slipping a little and it's difficult to discover the reason, it could be that there's an operational bottleneck that's preventing them from operating at full force. Maybe they're being held down by a peer group; maybe they aren't getting the right feedback from their manager. Receiving chastisement for matters beyond your control is totally disheartening.

  4. Follow the Golden Rule. Imagine that your mom died unexpectedly; that you're now in charge of an ailing grandparent; that your significant other is seriously ill; and act accordingly.

You're in charge of a complex enterprise, and it isn't possible or even desirable to be everybody's best friend. They require leadership, and sometimes leaders have to be tough. Sometimes they have to act harder than they feel or prefer.

At the end of the day, though, I'd argue that it's better to err on the side of humanity than otherwise. Be strong but fair, and you'll win your employee's loyalty along with their labor. 

Published on: Nov 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.