My neighbor thinks his wife divorced him because of a ham sandwich. He'll tell anyone who will listen about the crazy woman who left him all because one night, instead of having dinner with the family, he made himself a ham sandwich.
That one sandwich ruined 20 years of marriage. At least that's how he tells it.
But no one gets divorced over a ham sandwich. Just like nobody gets fired over a single badly written email or demoted because they got frustrated and cursed on a random Tuesday.
But problem people don't see it that way. They'll tell you, it was just one thing.
I'm working with a CEO who has a problem leader on his team. We'll call him Bill. Bill routinely undermined the senior team's initiatives and was openly negative in front of junior staff. The boss and other leaders told Bill numerous times, please critique in private, be supportive in front of staff.
Not surprisingly, Bill always had a reason/excuse. He acted as if each situation were an isolated incident. People began to say, that's just how Bill is. But the CEO was not OK with it. He knew the longer people get away with bad behavior, the worse they become.
One day, Bill did his usual negativity and the CEO saw it. He told Bill to report to his office. The CEO then used the model below to hold Bill accountable:
1. Don't make it about the ham sandwich.
The CEO started, "Your behavior is emblematic of a larger problem." Bill responded with the typical isolate the incident defense. "It's no big deal, I'm sorry. I lost my temper one time." The CEO was not having it.
2. Emphasize the recurring pattern and the impact.
The boss said, "If you leave this conversation telling yourself you got in trouble for one incident, you are not hearing me. I want to make this very clear; this is about a recurring pattern of negativity that's been going on for months. This affects every single employee here. We're spending too much time and effort dealing with the negative wake you leave behind."
3. Make the consequences clear.
The boss went on to say. "Attitude matters. You don't have to agree with everything. I expect you to weigh in with your best thinking on decisions we make as a team. What I will not accept is you poisoning our culture. I will no longer tolerate you spewing venom in front of staff or undermining your peers. If this continues, there will not be a place for you here."
The above conversation might seem harsh. It's meant to be. It was also calm and direct, which is the best to deal with a denier. If Bill leaves with the story, my boss lost it over one thing, he knows he's lying.
My neighbor did not get divorced over a ham sandwich. His wife will tell you, leaving a family meal to make his own sandwich was emblematic of his long pattern of ignoring the family, disregarding others, and being ungrateful.
After years of expressing her frustration, sadness, and anger, and having it go unheeded, his wife finally gave up on him the night he made the sandwich.
When people are frustrated with you, they'll find a way to tell you. You can blow it off as just one thing, but if you do that too often, you're going to be left alone eating your ham sandwich.
Lisa McLeod is the global expert in Noble Purpose. She is a keynote speaker and consultant who authored the bestsellers Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose.