Slay the monsters in your organization, be they people, processes or systems

time for action Beowulf, the Old English poem, sets an interesting parallel for organizational leadership.  Beowulf, the hero commissioned by the King of the Danes, frees the village from the monster Grendel and the people once again thrive. “Grendels” lurk in all organizations as people, processes or systems.  These monsters can limit innovation, productivity and talent.

The King of the Danes, after continued attacks, realized it was his responsibility to slay the monster and restore order to the land. Consider this: just how afraid of corporate monsters are today’s leaders?  As consultants, we are often hired to address people who behave badly, processes that are not working and systems that are ineffective. The processes and the systems take time to fix but, typically, the end yields better and sustainable results.  But what’s to be done about those people who are behaving badly?


Most leaders tolerate bad behavior because they are afraid of the consequences. These may include being sued, disrupting the workplace, influencing others, being unliked, etc.  The question rarely explored enough is “What are the consequences of not dealing with the bad behavior?”  To build some context around the issue, let’s consider the cynic in the organization.  For purposes of this discussion, the cynic is someone who continues unsubstantiated or misaligned views of the company, its leaders, or their peers, regardless of guidance or support they have received.  The cynic isn’t happy, thinks the organization is responsible for his or her happiness (or unhappiness), and generally wants to commiserate with cynical peers. Despite attempts to engage the cynic and overcome objections, he or she is disruptive.  Suddenly, the swamp has a growing number of Grendels and not enough Beowulfs.

The following is a rudimentary example.  In a recent conversation with a client, she conveyed an issue involving an employee who showed up at a company sponsored event with about 15 of her closest family members.  The event was for employees and their family members in recognition that hard work sometimes detracts from family time.  The leader’s knee jerk reaction was to draft a memo to all employees telling them that “immediate” family meant their spouse and children.  Hold on, I say!  Why place the blame for one employee’s transgression on all the others? Why not just deal directly with the issue to the employee involved?  The client’s response is that the employee is the company cynic, who has influence on others — and will most likely act unfavorably to the feedback (particularly if given directly). The client/leader believes that the collateral damage that will be created in handling the situation with the cynical employee directly will be problematic; however she deals with it, she will be the one perceived to be wrong, not the employee.   The leader is now a hostage to the cynic and the behavior will prevail.  As a leader, do you want to be a victim or the King of the Danes?

For most leaders, the answer is obvious.  In practice though, many leaders yield to the path of least resistance…tell the villagers to stay in their houses.  So, I am telling you something you already know.  And, while you may despise reading the obvious, healthy reminders often give us the impetus to do what we intuitively know has to be done.   Free the village!


First, do not ignore negative behavior.  Leaders are responsible for a multitude of results including bottom line revenue but you are also responsible for employee development and a positive culture.  Most likely the latter will enhance the profitability, so that’s a win squared!  Second, handle it immediately, discretely, and factually.  Don’t get caught up in debates.  Help the employee see the behavior and correct it.

Finally, you cannot let cynics usurp your organization’s success. One of the hardest tasks for a leader is deciding when to terminate an employee.  Sometimes, when behavior cannot or does not change, you need to make the tough decision.  Your organization’s constituents deserve your leadership.  They need you to lead.   When you do terminate the employee let him or her know why, so that he or she can change the behavior.  It’s easy to claim at-will employment or a restructure as a reason for termination.  But is that the message you want your organization to hear?

If you are afraid or perhaps unsure how to de-risk a separation, do what the King of the Danes did: get help from your Beowulf (the HR or legal internal or external team).  Asking for help is a sign of a good leader! Be strong and courageous; slay the monsters in your organization!

Sharon Imperiale
CCI Consulting