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Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter
Feb 3, 2019  |  Kenelm Tonkin


Helen Ireland of Cape Elizabeth, Maine asks:

I'm a startup founder and CEO. Our workplace culture started off positively but, as I reached 22 staff, I began to notice that whispers were occurring. Still the business was flourishing so much that I've now taken on 41 employees. But it's come at a price. Today my office is full of gossiping and hatred. Will it get better if I fire a few of the employees?

Kenelm Tonkin,
Chairman, Tonkin Corporation answers:

Welcome to the wonderful world of people and workplace culture.

Gossip and hatred is never a good thing.

First, check the influence your own practices are having on the staff:

  • Are staff paid on time?
  • Are they paid the agreed amount?
  • Have expectations been properly managed about pay amounts, how calculated and timing?
  • Has there been any favouritism or nepotism?
  • Have there been any rapid promotions based on factors other than merit?
  • Have personal factors or habits been allowed to infiltrate the workplace?
  • Have staff be overlooked for a promotion?

Next, check the staff who are gossiping:

  • Do they have a track record of fractious behaviour?
  • Are they normally difficult personalities or acting out of character?
  • What is their motivation?
  • Who or what are they gossiping about?
  • To whom is their hatred directed?

Next, check the staff who are not gossiping:

  • Take them into your confidence;
  • Ask them what’s swirling around the office;
  • Request them to name names, without fear of disclosure or recriminations.

Normally, the main influencer over workplace culture at the beginning of a company’s life is the founder. It is expected that, as the company grows and more staff are taken on, new, sometimes strong, personalities emerge which start to change the centre of gravity.

But, in the end, if you have a few bad apples in the company, it may well be better to purge them.

I had an employee recently who resisted a client requirement. With only a two-week tenure at my company, he was brazen enough to rally colleagues together and act as a union representative. Most ignored him but there were enough disciples to be a concern. He claimed to speak for them. He claimed authority he didn’t have.

Then I made a critical error. I circled around the disciples and one by one sought to pick them away from the ringleader. This only partially worked but, in the meantime, the rebel became more and more entrenched in my company.

I should have dealt with the bad apple swiftly and directly.

In Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, there is a rule which is applicable here:

Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.