Leadership: Five Ways to be Tough but Fair

Learn to be tough but fair.

There is a scene in the movie ‘Larry Crowne’ when Tom Hank’s character takes a job as a short order cook in a diner.

Larry is advised his new boss is  “tough but fair.” The new boss confirms this.  Larry successfully fulfills a trial order, gets the job and does quite well.

Some of the best people I have worked with and for were  tough but fair.

During my annual review in my first year as publisher of an Ohio newspaper, my boss started my review with some pretty tough talk.

“Things aren’t moving fast enough. I brought you in to clean things up, but it is taking too long. Most especially, we need to reduce expenses.”

After trying to explain my way out of this feedback, I expected to hear more specifics and then find out how big my raise would be that year.

What happen next took me by complete surprised. But it shouldn’t have. I had been receiving plenty of feedback before this conversation.

My boss, Jim, told me I would not be receiving a raise.

At the time, I thought this was completely unfair. I mean, gimme a friggin’ break! I took this newspaper over because the previous publisher was spending like a drunken sailor. It would take me some time to dial things down. Not getting a raise as a result was completely unreasonable!

And I said all of this to Jim…and more.

Jim listened. Then he answered.

“You’re right. This might not be completely fair. So I will make a deal with you. You get the expenses in check and I will retroactively give you the pay raise you deserve.”

As I made my way back to my newspaper, I was cursing and spitting under my breath. During dinner that night I told my wife what a jerk Jim was by doing this to me. Then I got serious.

Over the course of the next three or four months I drastically reduced the expenses of the newspaper.

Jim gave me my raise. More importantly, he taught me more than one lesson and they have stuck with me throughout my career.

Being tough but fair

1. Set an expectation – You can’t be tough AFTER the fact. Set your expectation and be sure the recipient understands the expectation.
2. Correct as you go, don’t wait – If you see someone off course, tell them right away.
3. Listen – Hear the reasons why a direct report is not meeting the expectation you set.
4. Adjust – Either adjust the performance or behavior, or adjust your expectation.
5. Reward success. Discipline failure.

What makes the difference between being tough but fair or being tough but unreasonable is #3 from this list above.

Without #3, you are just tough. Being just tough will remove the motivation from the average person that you lead or manage. You will eventually be known as unreasonable.

You will become a jerk.

Jim wasn’t a jerk as I had originally asserted. He listened and set a new challenge and expectation. Lucky for me, I responded. He had already done #1 through #4 on the list. Which side of the coin I landed in #5 was up to me.

Be a jerk. That is one approach to management. Don’t get your feelings hurt the next time you overhear your employees complaining about you.

Be tough but fair. This will teach people to do the best job they can, expect feedback and expect to be rewarded or disciplined. And the cycle will go on from there.

Be tough but fair. People will remember the lessons you teach them along the way.

Use Disqus below to answer these questions about Leadership: Five Ways to be Tough but Fair

Are there times you have managed firm but fair? Are you always firm but fair? Have you worked for a jerk?  What did it do to your level of motivation?

Al Getler is a newspaper, website, book and magazine publisher. He is also a comedian/ventriloquist and a speaker on leadership, customer service and personal branding.

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