By Michael Gunther

I’ve heard once, if not a hundred times, leaders who have had to make difficult decisions—that impact their team and/or customers—excuse their actions by saying, “it’s just business.” As if that phrase justifies their poor behavior, incomplete communication, or inappropriate actions. At the end of the day, people just want and need clear, open communication, and to be treated as real people.

A few years ago my friend, Lee, told me this story where he, the President of his company, and a board member had to go to one of their manufacturing plants and lay off a large group of employees. The President and the board member chose to stay locked in their office talking about the employees who had just received pink slips, but they wouldn’t speak to them. They said that it was “just business” and things like this happen. Lee believed differently, and went down to the lunch room area where the employees had gathered. He spoke to the individuals about what just happened, and tried to educate them on the next steps and community resources that were available to them. He realized it was business, but that didn’t justify treating people as if what happened to them wasn’t impacting their lives.

Sure some of them may have been angry and upset, but as a leader isn’t it your role to deal with these situations head on? It’s almost as if leaders sometimes don’t want to deal with the tough issues or situations, or maybe don’t want to take responsibility for their roles in the decisions. Cloaking it in the statement “it’s just business” almost gives the leader a way out, to deny what is really going on and their role in creating the situation. I wonder if these leaders were the kids who told their teachers that the dog ate their homework…

My belief is that relationships are all that we have in business and in life. The stronger the relationships, the stronger the teams, and the stronger an individual’s personal foundation becomes. This doesn’t mean that the workplace is like a family necessarily, but that you treat everyone with respect for who they are and what they contribute to the team. You support them during their highs and lows in order to see them achieve their highest potential towards the organization’s common goals.

Relationships take a lot of work and at times you have to communicate unpleasant things, and the more up front and honest you are the stronger the relationship will become. I remember years ago when I was working for a storage operator in Texas. I had to terminate an individual because of poor performance and a bad attitude. She was defensive; I outlined specifically what was not working and she left the organization upset. A few months later I was checking out at a retail establishment and lo and behold there she was working the cash register.

Of course I happened to be with my mom who was visiting that week. My first instinct was to switch lines, but I chose not to and said hello as we approached the register. She beamed with a huge smile and thanked me for helping her see what had not been working. No one had ever identified the performance items with her that I had shared, and she said it changed her own perception of herself and how she worked. She said she loved where she was now, and realized that if I hadn’t had that tough conversation and let her go she would never be where she was today.

This experience has always stuck in my mind because if I had let her go and said “it’s just business” without taking the time to provide her feedback, she may have continued on a different path.

Bottom Line

The strongest leaders, even in the most challenging of times or difficult communications, maintain the belief that maintaining solid, honest, and open communication is always is the best path. Their people will appreciate it.

This is another article in a series on Michael’s entrepreneurial story and how being raised in a large family has influenced his career.

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