Skip to content

Freedom to the nose (2): stealing at work

How free are you at work? How free are the people you’re responsible for?

“As free as possible,” is a good answer, but there are some clear limits: no-one is allowed to hurt people physically (freedom to the nose) or to steal the property of the organisation (or other people).

Intangible theft – stealing time, for example – is harder to prevent. We might catch a colleague who claims to be at the office but goes to the beach, but it takes a very good manager to collect strong evidence that a colleague is consistently showing up in person but not doing their work.

And then there are people who steal energy and atmosphere. Seth Godin points out that bullying is theft:

The bully frightens away some of your best employees, because they can most easily find another place to work. He also silences the eager and the earnest, the people with great ideas who are now too intimidated to bother sharing them. His behavior has robbed your organization of the insight that could open so many doors in the future.

Bad attitudes have a very real and dangerous cost and (as with most costs) addressing them is painful in the short term:

… the next steps are painful and difficult, but quite direct. Bullies can’t work here.

If you don’t have buy in on that, spend more time and passion and energy to get it. Not around a certain person or a certain action, but on the general irrevocable principle. An organization that is built on ideas and connection can’t thrive when there’s a bully in the room. If you’re part of one that doesn’t care about this, perhaps it’s time to considering moving on.

Once you start to clean up the culture, will there be judgment calls and edge cases and a need for warnings and improvement plans? Of course. But just as laptop theft drops when our tolerance of it disappears, so does bullying. Most bullies aren’t sociopaths, immune to correction. They are opportunists, using the tools that have often worked for them in the past.

Seth Godin – Bullying is theft

This also applies to negative, unhelpfully critical, can’t-do attitudes: all exert an unnecessary drag or emotional friction on the team.

In my experience, team members’ outlook and attitude (including bullying) is the biggest influence on team culture, and one of the hardest things to change. It takes clarity about how important it is, a willingness to speak frankly and to not to be liked, and persistence.

You need to hire as much for impact on team culture as for skills, so hire carefully.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...