In his book, Call Sign Chaos, former General Jim Mattis offers: “There’s a profound difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline. Mistakes are made when you’re trying to carry out commander’s intent, and you screw up in the pressure of the moment.” He goes on to suggest that mistakes are “a bridge to learning how to do things right.”
Mistakes merit a second chance. Alternatively, a lack of discipline in the military is an offense that merits court-martial, dismissal, or worse.
Lacking the guidance and enforceability of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, managers everywhere else are left to grapple with and grope for solutions to the dilemma—was it a mistake or a lack of discipline? And, if it is the latter, what’s the right response.
This article explores a specific case and shares the manager’s approach to the situation. As you review the case and response, ask yourself how you might handle it if you were the manager.
Bob Backs Out of a Commitment
Bob is scheduled to represent his firm at an industry event that runs over a weekend. He’s on the speaking schedule for a brief thirty-minute presentation. His colleague, Susan, worked hard to secure this spot for the firm and is counting on Bob to bring his A-game to this audience.
Early Saturday morning, Bob’s manager receives an unexpected call from Susan, who is angry with Bob. Bob had decided at the last moment not to attend the event. To make matters worse, he communicated this change of schedule directly to the event organizer and didn’t bother to let Susan know. She only learned of this situation when the event organizer reached back to her to lodge a loud complaint.
Bob is one of his manager’s most valued team members. There seems to be no limit to Bob’s ability to adjust, adapt, and succeed in different roles. He’s a significant player in the firm’s emerging strategy project, and he’s genuinely liked and respected by individuals across the firm. Thus far, he’s been an A player, and someone the manager believes is destined for expanded responsibilities.
Upon investigating the issue, the manager learns that Bob was not sick. Bob admitted being pressured by his spouse, who was angry that Bob was giving up a family-activity filled weekend for work. Bob rationalized the lack of his thirty-minute presentation wouldn’t be detrimental to a conference where participants had multiple choices/tracks at the same time. He made the judgment call to back out of the event and didn’t think it was important enough to notify team members.
The Manager’s Dilemma—Mistake or a Lack of Discipline?
The manager is left to pick up the pieces of Bob’s decision and determine the proper course of action. While he empathizes with the pressure coming from Bob’s significant other, the need for occasional weekend travel is well understood by everyone on the team. The manager has a liberal policy for balancing the scales with schedule flexibility all year long.
The event organizer was hopping mad at Bob and the firm for creating a last-minute scheduling crisis. The reputation of the firm had been irreparably damaged in the event organizer’s mind, and there would be no forthcoming invitations to her industry events.
Bob’s co-worker, Susan, is hopping mad on multiple levels. She believes the situation reflects poorly on her as well as the firm. And the fact that Bob decided not to inform her of this change so she could make alternative arrangements—or “talk some sense into him” feels like a betrayal of trust.
Does the situation reflect a mistake that merits a second chance? Or, is it a transgression that demonstrates a lack of discipline?
We’re Not in the Military in Our Organizations, But…
I have little doubt the situation described above reflects a lack of discipline on Bob’s part.
He effectively abandoned his post, failed to notify his teammates, failed to live up to a commitment, and damaged the reputation of his firm, all with this one decision. It’s likely Bob’s credibility bank account would be overdrawn as this team members learned of the situation.
I’ll wager Bob is court-martialed in the military.
However, in his commercial role in this for-profit firm, is Bob’s transgression a firing offense? Or, does Bob merit a second chance?
The initial instinct of the manager was to dismiss Bob for his poor judgment and the resulting damage to the firm’s reputation in the mind of the event organizer. Additionally, the manager viewed Bob’s decision as a violation of core team values around accountability and trust. Since it was likely everyone would know about the situation by mid-morning on Monday, any decision would be a test of the manager’s commitment to the values.
Yes, dismissal seemed like the right choice.
However, (and there’s always a “but” in these decisions), the manager felt like there might be another way forward. He perceived this as one of those coaching and leadership moments and decided to do something more difficult than firing Bob. He was going to give Bob control of the situation.
The Manager’s Approach
After a carefully developed feedback discussion, the manager summarized as follows:
“You’ve destroyed your credibility, squandered trust, and cast a negative light on our firm. The right outcome is to terminate our working relationship now. I should fire you. However, you created this situation, and I wonder if you can fix it.”
The fix they developed together involved Bob going in front of the team and describing what he did wrong and apologizing. He would need to ask them for the opportunity to regain their trust, and then he would have to commit to doing it. The words must be backed by action.
Bob opted for the more difficult of the two paths—to work on rebuilding his credibility with a group he had let down.
Lacking that Uniform Code of Military Justice, Bob’s manager had to make the call on multiple levels.
- Bob was a valued employee, a member of the team, and someone actively contributing to the firm’s strategy.
- There were external pressures from Bob’s personal life that factored into the poor decision. The manager believed that part of his support and caring for team members extended to their families.
- The manager’s read was that the decision wasn’t the true testament to Bob’s character.
- The manager believed the team would give Bob a second chance.
- If and when Bob succeeded with his second chance, the approach would serve to strengthen the culture, not harm it.
In interviewing Bob’s manager several years after the event and when they were no longer working together, I asked him what he thought about the decision in hindsight. His answer underscored the difficulty of the mistake versus lack-of-discipline dilemma outside the military.
“The easier choice would have been to fire him. It would have reinforced accountability on my team, and I don’t think anyone would have looked negatively on the outcome. However, I believed in Bob, and in what I perceived was his good character.”
“For me, the harder choice was to keep him. I had to decide to put my credibility on the line and ask my team members to trust me on this decision. And to do that, I needed Bob to decide he was going to walk on hot coals for them and me. Bob did the walk; the issue faded and moved far into the rearview mirror. I’m glad I took a risk on him.”
I suspect more than a few will disagree with the manger’s decision. I’m mixed. It wouldn’t have been wrong to fire Bob, although, it would have cost the firm a valuable talent.
Alternatively, as the manager points out, the decision to keep Bob likely calls his (the manager’s) credibility into question.
Right or wrong, the situation illustrates the challenge of navigating workplace issues. Are they mistakes or unforgivable circumstances where a lack of discipline endangers the mission?
For these types of decisions, you need to draw on a strong sense of values—yours and your teams. You also need to trust in your judgment of an individual’s character. And finally, you have to remember the mission, which in this case is to take the firm into new markets. (See my article at SmartBrief on Commander’s Intent and how it ties to the mission.)
Ultimately, Bob’s manager opted to give him a second chance because he believed in Bob and was willing to invest his credibility in the situation.
That’s a tough leadership call.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
The calls you make as a manager on people ultimately determine whether you succeed or fail. People will make mistakes and people certainly will exhibit a lack of discipline under pressure. And while your decision impacts someone else, in reality, it’s your leadership character that is on the line.
In the case above, Bob did the heavy lifting of rebuilding credibility for the remainder of his tenure while helping the company succeed wildly in new markets. That happy ending could very easily have gone the other way if the manager’s read on Bob’s character was wrong.
How would you handle this situation? Why?