The Frozen Hostage Entrepreneur

Damon has a problem. His staffing company is four years old and growing like crazy. Bottom line profits have doubled year-over-year since he launched the firm and several members of his team have been with him from the very beginning. Sounds like a dream story so far, right? But as I said, Damon has a problem. A key member of his organization, Mason, has become increasingly disruptive. Mason is in a position of leadership and works tirelessly – the business would not be where it is today without him. Unfortunately, the way he treats others is unacceptable. His approach is command and control. He bullies. He yells. And he threatens. Other members of the team go out of their way to avoid dealing with this individual and everyone walks on eggshells when they are forced to interact with him.

Damon isn’t blind to the problem. He has counseled Mason on many occasions. The result is always the same – an apology and a promise to change. But change is either short-lived or never happens at all. Within days he’s back to his old ways. Damon has offered to pay for therapy but is met with a benign sort of resistance. Mason agrees that he will consider professional help but never follows through to begin receiving it.

Recently Damon began thinking about making a change and terminating Mason. He considered all the chaos and hurt feelings caused by this person. But he also recognized that Mason has some unique skills not to mention important client relationships. On the one hand Damon knows that Mason has already caused the departure of several team members over the past 18 months. Yet, he worries that letting Mason go might cause the loss of certain clients. And who would be able to step in and have the domain expertise to function as effectively as does Mason? Damon doesn’t know what to do and as the days and weeks go by, the problems with Mason persist. This is a classic case of The Frozen Hostage.

In effect, Damon is allowing himself to be held hostage by Mason. And he’s frozen into a do-nothing position. Does any of this sound familiar? Many of us undoubtedly have similar situations that exist in our own organizations. We want to try and make things work to everyone’s satisfaction. We all want our “Masons” to turn over a new leaf and start treating others with the respect they deserve – then everyone will be happy. Not one of us wants to take that deep breath and plunge into the icy waters of our “Mason’s” exit. We are convinced it will be messy and painful. So, we procrastinate. And our inaction causes more suffering within our organizations.

I will be the first to concede that dealing with an issue like this is not pleasant. We develop loyalties, especially where we know someone has busted their rear to help us build our business. But eventually we cannot tolerate the behavior any longer and realize that we need to put an end to the madness – especially if our “Mason” isn’t interested in truly modifying his behavior.

The path toward “thawing out” the Frozen Hostage is straightforward. We need a plan. It starts with determining whether we can abide our “Mason” until we find a replacement for him. In either case, we must identify the process for finding the replacement. The plan includes developing a clear understanding of Mason’s role and accountabilities and looking for vulnerabilities. Then we tackle the vulnerabilities including technical skills and processes, as well as internal and external relationships. What is the timetable for implementing this plan? What is going to be announced and when? Who is going to cover the different roles and accountabilities on an interim basis after Mason departs? If we are lucky enough to surreptitiously hire his replacement, how are we going to ensure that our new team member hits the ground running without stumbling?

When we are the Frozen Hostage, we aren’t inclined to create this plan of attack. We just keep hoping that things get better, and we don’t have to take drastic action . . . except it never seems to work out that way. By forcing ourselves into the planning mode we begin the thawing process.

As leaders, becoming a Frozen Hostage causes serious morale problems within our organizations. Knowing that we eventually must take an unpleasant action, a logical planning process for replacing a key team member can make the path a bit smoother.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Ethan and Emma

Entrepreneur Ethan and Entrepreneur Emma are similar in a lot of ways. They have built successful businesses from the ground up; are creators of innovative products, and are considered by their peers as visionaries. But there is a major difference between them. Probably the best way to explain this difference is to observe them in action.

One morning, Ethan’s production manager enters his office at which point Ethan launches into an inquisition. Apparently there is an issue on the assembly line and Ethan wants to get to the bottom of it. The production manager begins to explain the problem, but Ethan interrupts and cuts him off. He raises his voice and his face turns red – it’s obvious that he’s agitated. Eventually he stands up, paces and gestures frequently.

Across town, Emma is meeting with her sales manager who is explaining issues involving a downturn in sales. Emma sits calmly and listens to the entire presentation. She doesn’t say anything for a few moments and then asks several very direct questions. Her expression never changes as her clear blue eyes focus like lasers on her associate. Emma is the picture of composure and finally offers her opinion in a steady and measured voice.

How would we characterize the behavior of Ethan? And how about that of Emma? The word that describes Ethan is “aggressive” and the word that describes Emma is “assertive.” There’s no question that Ethan was heavy handed in his approach with the production manager. It’s almost like he was trying to overpower the guy. By contrast Emma was able to demonstrate her leadership forcefully without showing anger.

Assertiveness or aggressiveness – which is the more effective leadership style? While it may depend upon the circumstances, assertiveness has a higher probability to successfully influence others. Think about it. Are we more receptive to someone who is positive or someone who is negative? An assertive leader may be straightforward and even direct, but never belittles or resorts to intimidation.

Why are some leaders too aggressive? I believe that one explanation could be a lack of confidence, some sort of insecurity, or a combination of both. People who are concerned about being “found out” may use aggressiveness as a smokescreen. Leaders who are overly aggressive may cause morale problems. When negative energy is created it is difficult to maintain a productive environment. Aggressive people may be prone to mercurial outbursts and unnerving stares which further contribute to the unhealthy atmosphere that has been created.

For entrepreneurs building a business (and anyone else for that matter), a gut check is in order to determine one’s position on the aggression meter. Aggressive tendencies can be tempered when we learn how to become more assertive. And the first step is to recognize when our aggressive behavior is about to go on display. It’s important to identify a trigger that alerts us that we need to shift gears. This will require some real introspection to make this discovery. Then we must emulate the behavior of an assertive person. We become impassive with our facial features. We project calm. We lower the volume of our voice and we show respect for those with whom we interact. Changing one’s reputation as an aggressive personality is a tall order. But with awareness and effort such a change can be accomplished.

Assertiveness is a positive quality that can enhance our leadership style. And through awareness and commitment it’s possible to eliminate aggressive tendencies and replace them with the assertive traits that are desirable.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Audio Episode 50 – The Last Word.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.