Leaders, Be Specific About Bad Behavior

Great leaders have learned to be specific when addressing bad behavior. Here’s why taking a “you know who you are” approach can backfire.

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See if this scenario sounds familiar.

The boss schedules a rare department-wide meeting. At 1:00 pm, everyone is to be in the Conference Room.

In the lead-up to the meeting, there’s plenty of water cooler whispering, guessing, and hand wringing. 

Only one thing is clear. No one knows what the meeting is about.

Eventually, the time arrives and all department members are present and accounted for. Tension hangs thick in the air.

At 1:00 pm sharp, the boss strides into the room. Her demeanor is unmistakable. There’s a problem. She pauses momentarily before launching purposefully into her prepared comments.

“I’ve been checking department attendance records and I’m NOT pleased.

You Know Who You Are… Maybe, Maybe Not

“A couple of you — YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE — have missed far too many days this year … it’s unacceptable — AND IT’S GONNA STOP!”

She’s on a roll. Her tongue lashing increases in intensity and duration yet, little does she recognize the damage being done.

And, unfortunately, for this unsuspecting boss, the damage is primarily self-inflicted.

Why Leaders Need to Be Specific About Bad Behavior

Leaders, let’s talk about the need to be specific about bad behavior. To be specific represents an important leadership concept, and it means to have something “clearly defined or identified.”

Do you think the boss knew specifically who was having attendance problems?

Of course, she did! She had access to the attendance records. She’d heard complaints — either directly or indirectly — from supervisors and employees alike. She knew exactly which employees were missing too much work. But for some reason, she didn’t want to confront them directly. 

So, rather than confront the real offenders, she chose to blame the entire team, hoping that her broad message would hit her specific target.

Foolish choice. It’s one that rarely, if ever, works.

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How Not Being Specific Backfires

Here’s why.

The employees with bad attendance knew their individual records sucked. But they’d never been confronted. Now listening to the boss’s comments, they begin to think, 

“Maybe I’ve gotten a pass for some reason. Maybe she doesn’t even know it’s me that is the problem.”

Therefore, no motivational foundation is established for future improvement in their personal attendance. I can accurately predict that it will be the “same ol’, same ol’” in the future. 

The employees with GOOD attendance records, on the other hand, their personal motivation is plummeting. They had made sure they were at work on time, every day. And now what does it get them? The boss apparently doesn’t even know who the poor attenders are.

They begin to think, 

“Now I’m getting a butt chewing?! Does she think I’m the problem?! What a crock!”

You know, that’s really not good. So what is there to do?

It’s pretty simple actually.

What the Great Leaders Know

The great leaders — the great communicators — among us, don’t look forward to difficult conversations any more than the rest of us do. But the great leaders have learned a lesson that has apparently eluded the others.

They know that “Bad news does not get better with time.” If a problem needs to be addressed, the best time to do so is now — not a week, a month, or a year from now.

Secondly, when preparing to confront any issue or problem, a good leader makes sure they can be specific about who’s at fault and who isn’t. They then methodically and specifically, deal directly with those involved.

They know to be specific about what is expected regarding future performance and then hold them accountable.

Leaders are best respected when they are focused, rather than unfocused. 

Say it with me, “Leaders, be specific.”

Need Help with Communication and Confrontation Management? Check out Sessions 4, 5, and 8 in our Leadership Development Program.

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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