The Expendable Crewman
You've probably heard parodies of the hit series Star Trek where an expendable crewman (EC) is taken on an away mission. Experienced trekkies know what to expect . . . that crewman probably isn't going to make it back to the ship. The regular cast will give the EC a seemingly benign order . . . "Hey crewman, go check out that ominous looking device . . . I'm sure it's safe!," or "Crewman, go off over there in the deep woods and see what you find. It's okay . . . you'll be fine . . . I think." or "Are we running low on expendable crewmen? No? Oh good! Then let's go ahead and check out what is in that ominous-looking cave." The parodies play on the perception that the famous series took non-essential cast on away missions when they needed someone to die . . . thus giving the effect of danger without having to kill off one of their main characters (Tasha Yar in Generations excepted of course . . . for you die-hard trekkies).
Sometimes business leaders have a similar attitude. No, I'm not suggesting that leaders "purposely" pick employees who to be "expendable," in fact quite the opposite, most leaders I have worked with demonstrate a high level of concern with about their employees . . . how to train and retain employees, how to improve working conditions and provide better benefits etc. . . . and most have some awareness that their human system itself can be the problem ("killing off" crewman unnecessarily for example).
No, I'm not suggesting the leaders in general conscientiously look at employees as expendable--anymore than they look at their own arm or leg as expendable. What I am suggesting is that it is not uncommon when a human system (of any stripe) has chronic or repetitive problems that the natural tendency of any human system is to try and figure out what is the real problem--which can include trying to understand "who is to blame for the problem?"
Truthfully, at times, using the corporeal image, it is prudent to amputate an appendage to save a life. But to keep amputating more and more appendages suggests a larger systemic problem and one that may threaten the life of the "host" itself. Amputation of employees, however is typically the last thing leaders want to do and usually described as one of their worst experiences as a leader.( If they operate within a family business it is especially traumatic as the impact is felt beyond the workplace.)
Often amputation via the "blame game" is simply the final option or the easiest way out of a painful condition, especially one that is seen as a chronic condition. It may fix the immediate problem but often ignores the root cause within the system itself and the impact the system will have to adapt to because of the loss. Quite regularly this radical "treatment" is taken because none of the attempted remedies have worked and the leader doesn't know what else to do.
Sadly, the remedies have often been superficial at best and, tiring of the problems, leaders skip harder remedies (like invasive surgeries) and go straight to cutting off the offending part. The "wouldn't you rather lose an arm rather than your life" argument, valid if the choice is really an "either-or" dichotomy, often is an escape from the fears and pain of radical interventions or the progressive treatment options. Often the correct answer is not one extreme or the other, but the choice to "save both my arm and my life!" through facing the tough choices of continuing to pursue different and more aggressive treatment options.
David Marquet, a retired U.S. Navy Captain, in his book Turn the Ship Around! tells a story of how a well-intentioned petty officer had caused a "red tag violation" -- a serious violation--that often would result in a "captain's mast" a non-judicial punishment, essentially administrative, without trial (like a court-martial). When asked, the petty officer was open and truthful about his mistake. Punishment, in form of the captain's mast with a fine or more serious outcome, was typically the next step. Instead, Marquest thanked the crewman for his honesty, and dismissed all of the team except the supervisors. He then asked the supervisor's "Now gentlemen, how are we going to prevent this from happening again?"
The result wasn't fast. A captain's mast would have been quick, neat and tidy: the crewman had admitted it was his fault, fine him, warn him not to make the mistake again . . . done. Instead Marquet spent seven and a half hours to develop a system of "deliberate action" that ultimately earned them the highest zAs that other crews had made but this new process of "deliberate action" had prevented them from actually making the mistakes. Problem . . . really . . . solved!
As a leader, problems often reveal how you really think about the people you lead. While almost no leader would say that they view employees as expendable, their actions often reflect a deeper, and more conflicted, reality . . . enduring intense and chronic pain with no disceirnible end is very hard to endure and makes radical solutions like amputation more palatable.
So ask yourself . . . "What is my attitude about my team members?"
Which one of the following most closely aligns with my actions and decisions as a leader?
No one is expendable. Leadership will make efforts maximize the retention and safety of all members. The culture and engagement of the employees will be a focus. The prevention of problems through training, mentoring, shadowing, etc will be evident. While "no one is expendable" is a worthy ideal, if taken to an extreme the whole organism can perish over attempts to save one crew member. A leader who cannot "deal with" a toxic employee may find they are losing value members of their team or the team's over-all health may continue to decline.
Some are more expendable than others. (Sometimes stated in some form of "You need expendable crewmen to protect the valuable team members.") This is what I call using people as "cannon fodder." Sometimes leaders fall into the trap of thinking that attrition is a natural and even healthy part of their organization. "You are always going to have turnover in the service division," one such leader claimed--avoiding in this case some very unhealthy team dynamics. The goal, they reason is to protect the valuable assets of the organization and focus on them. They accept a certain level of loss as inevitable. However, employees are not fools. They recognize that if any one segment is viewed as expendable in one situation then all crew mates may be viewed as expendable as well when circumstances demand it.
Everyone is expendable, (Or "expendable crewman are a necessary reality of business") This seems to be self-evident. Don't businesses and organizations outlive the employees? Not as often as you might think. This common view--that the employee is secondary to the role they occupy-- is really a very close cousin to the "some are more expendable" position, however, the latter "necessary reality" is a more benign version. While the former position belies a certain callousness and a hierarchical system of relative value on the leader's part, this stance, simply believes that entropy is part of the business experience and that the roles within the organization are the critical element not who occupies them at any given moment.
Rarely, have leaders given much thought to the pros and cons of their view of employees. Most operate on hidden assumptions unless they face trouble. When trouble comes, the actions of the leader displays the underlying assumptions they have about their employees. Bad leaders react, cutting off the offending appendage quickly. While good leaders--recognizing the impact of an amputation--seek progressive treatments. They recognize,instinctually, that this trouble often is caused by a systemic failure, and look for systemic remedies before "blaming" and severing the affected limb..
So, what's a leader to do? How about this . . . Believe, communicate, and act first and foremost as if no one is expendable. View your team holistically recognizing that each part is integrated into the whole and thus affect one another deeply. Seek progressive remedies, moving from the benign to the more aggressive. If solutions are not found, seek second opinions and new treatments. Accept losses only when unavoidable--recognizing when not having an expendable crewman threatens the whole enterprise (pun intended).