Add Some Pain to Consequences to Protect Your Boundaries

Sep 09, 2022

Our best relationships still cannot rescue us. Instead, they hold us responsible for our performance. There are standards and there are consequences. Few things are worse for people than rewarding or overlooking poor performance and bad behavior. It clearly tells the underachiever, “What you’re doing is good enough,” and tells the others, “Your efforts toward excellence, your care, and your diligence have no value.”

Think about how this plays out at work. Jim Blanchard, the former lead director of the board of AT&T and CEO of Synovus Financial for thirty five-years, was heralded by Fortune magazine in 1999 for building the “#1 Place to Work in America.” I asked him why his company rose to the top of these rankings. He explained that he’s always seen the culture as being just as important as the business plan.

The leaders there established the values and norms of behavior that the company would embody–to care for, develop, respect, appreciate, empower, and help employees–and they were very serious about holding people accountable when they didn’t live up to those cultural values. Blanchard said two things that stood out to me. One was that the leadership team made a vow that they wouldn’t give anyone a boss they wouldn’t work for themselves. The other was that they wouldn’t tolerate anyone being mistreated, bullied, or dealt with in any way that was not respectful and caring. He also told all of his employees that if they were mistreated by a boss, they should try to work it out with him or her first, but if they couldn’t get to a resolution, they could come directly to him. He told them that if he didn’t deliver on this commitment, they had no reason to ever believe anything else he told them.

Why was this arrangement significant? It made very clear and specific what behaviors were expected. It made clear that it was everyone’s responsibility to build a healthy culture with the values they’d agreed to enforce. Those executives and supervisors who didn’t accept these standards or couldn’t perform in that manner were simply not suited for the job at Synovus. Over the next two years, about two hundred leaders departed the company. Some were regular retirees. Some tried, were coached and counseled, but couldn’t fit the cultural requirements. Some tried and were successful in the transition. Some were simply asked to leave. Some left voluntarily because they chose to seek another environment. But the net-net was a dramatic improvement in the quality of leadership and the workplace environment. That’s the mark of a culture of true responsibility and accountability. It paid off.

Here is why it worked: it got everyone in control of themselves. Someone who was treating others badly was given a choice: improve or leave for somewhere more suited to that approach. Such clarity leads to greater self-control. Some exercised it; others chose not to. Once everyone understands the standards to be met and sees what happens when they aren’t, a positive feedback loop drives more learning and growth and produces new levels of achievement.

There is no freedom without responsibility, and that is generally taken only if there are consequences for not taking it. A standard without consequences is a fantasy, a wish, or a suggestion, not a standard. And consequences that involve no pain or loss aren’t consequences at all. Real consequences mean that if I don’t meet the standard, I lose something important to me. Otherwise, we drift. 

In a relationship that is based on true connection between two people, the standards must be enforced. They create a protective barrier that keeps the system, the relationship, the family, the friendship, or the partnership healthy. If you allow bad behavior, the entire system suffers. As Jim Blanchard told me, “People who violate the values really need to be somewhere else. If not, they really ruin what you are trying to accomplish.”

While the context that was shared with me happened to be in a corporate setting, think about how this applies to each area of your life. Friends who act like anything but friends, and whose bad behavior you tolerate willingly, will continue to do so because there are no consequences to their actions and no well articulated standards to enforce. Families have values as well, and when one person (or faction) acts against the family’s interest, it interferes with that family’s ability to stay truly connected.

Unfortunately, we’ve all seen it happen. A teacher who allows one student constantly to disrupt the class. The boss who allows one team member to make the culture divisive or difficult. The family who allows one person to ruin holiday gatherings. Facing reality can be painful and difficult, but the consequences of not confronting it are always far worse.