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Kinds In The Back Seat

By Chuck Violand

June 3, 2019

Anybody who’s owned a business for any length of time has experienced periods when their job as CEO felt more like a parent driving a car with unruly kids in the backseat than it did the enlightened leader of a growing business. And, although the wisdom contained in the parenting phrases we heard as kids in the back seat―or have found ourselves repeating to our own kids from the front seat―can be good advice at times, does it also apply to business? When you’re a parent, the kids can’t get out of the moving car and find another family to join. Employees can, and it’s usually pretty costly when they do, so we need to be sure our wisdom is sound. Let’s look at a few phrases.

Do I need to pull this car over? You knew things were serious when it wasn’t just any car they were going to pull over. It was THIS car. While my own parents never used this particular expression, I’m sure there were times when they thought about it.

In business, there is no “pulling this car over” to have that big Texas talkin’ to with an unruly employee. Things keep right on moving while you employ radical candor to remind them of your expectations. But I would recommend closing your door first.

Don’t make me come back there! Even as a kid, you knew your parents couldn’t “come back there” while they were driving the car, so this threat was an empty one unless they chose to abandon forward momentum and stop the car to climb over the seat.

This is the equivalent of stepping down from your role as CEO to get involved at a level of your organization that you’re already paying someone else to handle. While on rare occasions this might be necessary, it’s also a slippery slope. Not only are you not doing the things you’re supposed to be doing to keep the business moving forward, but it causes people in your organization to stop doing the things they’re being paid to do.

How many times do I have to tell you…? This phrase served as an early warning system for my siblings and me. We knew the first time our parents said this we were safe. It was when it was repeated in progressively higher pitched voices that we knew their fuse was getting shorter … and so were our leashes.

Many businesses use a progressive discipline approach: verbal warning, written warning, termination. But for most small business owners this is easier in theory than it is in practice. As a result, we end up with the five- or six-step progressive discipline policy: complaining out loud, verbal warning, written warning, time off without pay, shunning, and, finally, termination—occasionally with the option to return at some later date.

Don’t make me reach around and smack someone. In today’s gentrified parenting climate, it’s frowned upon to smack your kid. But, let’s face it, any kid with a parent whose arm is long enough to actually reach the back seat and connect with their kid’s bobbing and weaving head is worth being listened to.

The last time I checked, using physical force on a wayward employee not only alarms the other employees, but it’s illegal. I recommend against it.

While the sage wisdom of automotive discipline practiced by our parents makes for great stories to tell our kids (and to include in a Monday Morning Note), I would recommend we stick with healthier, more effective approaches to employee engagement.