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Whipping the golden goose

Originally posted November 25, 2017.

I still remember that one scary line in an email from my supervisor early in my management career.

“That can’t happen again.”

It was a short email with three sentences, and a couple other managers were copied on that message. I was informed that one of my employees had confronted an employee in another department — in another building, actually — and evidently made a bit of a scene.

It was especially scary to me because I couldn’t control the behavior of my employees. I could control my behavior, but one of the early realizations as a manager was that it wasn’t enough for me to work hard and to avoid making stupid decisions. I somehow had to produce the same from my employees.

The supervisor who had sent that email was known for being highly respected and highly feared. He was more than twice as old as me, and much more powerful in the company. He was one of the founders of the company, and I had been promoted in management less than a month earlier.

I assured my supervisor that wouldn’t happen again and that I would have a “frank conversation” with the employee.

I decided to play it tough and called the employee into my office. I did not raise my voice, but I was too hard on him. He sat there quietly, but his face was fuming. He felt as though he had a legitimate problem that he was trying to solve and that I wasn’t sticking up for him. In fact, I was taking the other side.

It was too much for him. Five minutes after our conversation, he informed me that he was quitting.

I didn’t want that! I liked the employee, he was a good worker, and had always been a nice person apart from that incident.

In hindsight, I now realize that I was “killing the golden goose.” I base that off Aesop’s fable of the golden goose in which the farmer gets frustrated with the goose that is producing him riches and ends up killing the goose.

I am glad to report that it didn’t take me long to realize my mistake. A day or two later I called the employee and apologized, overcame my pride, and asked him to return. Although he appreciated the call and said there were no hard feelings, the damage had been done. He didn’t return.

Thankfully I had never acted that harshly with an employee since then. However, there have been times I have been tempted to “whip the golden goose.” I use the term “whip” because I didn’t quite kill the goose; I just tried the wrong way to get it to produce.

Those of us who have any type of leadership — managers, parents, teachers, pastors — can be tempted to beat our subordinates or our protegees into submission. We think that what is needed is a firm hand or better accountability.

But we must also remember that whipping the golden goose can cause resentment and broken relationships in the long term. Pounding our workers, children, or friends into submission may product immediate eggs but destroy the golden goose.

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