People like to talk cultural change in the board room, but more than words are needed. You need to commit. No half measures or insincere gestures. The viability of your company is at stake. It won’t be pretty, but dogged determination is the only way. You also need to support those implementing change. I will give you a couple of examples, but first, some background. 

I had always been the guy that got the troubled departments. Tasked to make them productive, I got good at it and developed a reputation as a fixer. I decided to make that my niche and presented myself as such to manufacturing companies. It was edgy and marketable, plus companies will pay well for you to do things they can’t. I looked at it as behavioral conditioning through aggressive leadership.

So, in a span of over two decades, I have supervised or managed hundreds of skilled people in some rough places. That is not to say that all were bad —many were gentlemen, the salt of the earth.

But while some appreciated a steady, well-paying gig; others were bitter and resentful that they had ended up on the boulevard of broken dreams. These are usually the troublemakers and they are often quite intelligent and belligerent. I’ve had to break up fights and walk many people out the door. It happens more than companies like to admit.  

After an exemplary 90-day probationary period, a particular employee turned. He completely changed and we realized we had a thug on our hands. He was bullying fellow employees and established a following. This was a dangerous turn of events.  

He generally avoided me until he was transferred to my department. One night, after having words earlier in the shift, I came across him at his work station. He was wild-eyed and brandishing a box cutter.

There were other people on the floor and I had to react. I approached him and got close, containing him. I stared him in the eye and growled, “What are you gonna do with that?” He thought about it. I then leaned closer and said something to him. He closed the box cutter, threw it on a bench and backed down. I walked him out, suspended pending termination and made the appropriate phone calls.

Easy termination, right? What violation could be more severe? Troublemaker gone. I even had witnesses.

The next morning I went to the HR office to discuss. I found the employee had complained that I had threatened him! I was confronted, “Steve, did you really tell him that you would break his wrists!?”

I responded, “Yes, more specifically, I told him I would break his [expletive deleted] wrists!”

I was simply doing what was necessary to protect myself and others. I felt my actions were appropriate and proportionate. I had to disarm him; what if I hadn’t?

I was admonished. I was told my use of profanity was unacceptable and the incident considered a wash. My behavior canceled his! Fait accompli, no appeal. He kept his job. He was simply transferred to another shift.

Moving your problem doesn’t solve it. Plus this was a bad person creating an insurgency.  What message does this send? The decision seemed more ego and fear than intelligence. How absurd.

If my efforts are not appreciated, I move on. You are on your own. I started looking for another gig and left the company shortly thereafter. As a post script, I heard after much misery they eventually terminated the employee for attendance. Apparently you can threaten with sharp objects but you better not be late too many times. Whatever.

In many cultures, the hardcore troublemakers become a somewhat revered or even protected class. They game the system so well, they intimidate management. If you don’t have considerable upper echelon support, many of your efforts at reform will be undermined and a weak HR Manager that won’t back you up is peril to any organization.

At another company I had a real rough crew —unsavory men and women.  These people had intimidated every manager before me. Hourlies were literally telling supervisors how much they felt like producing that day. They would leave the plant, party in the parking lot or engage in other unmentionable activities while on the clock.   

Undaunted, I immediately made my presence felt and rode them hard. I was everywhere —inside, outside, up or down. I changed patterns and often showed up unexpectedly, keeping them on their toes. They called me “the phantom,” which I admit I rather liked at the time.

This is the classic “threat in being.” You can get in their head so effectively that eventually you don’t need to stay on top of them anymore. I would tell the trouble makers that they had brought me upon themselves and deserved me; a righteous affliction. Karma.  

When you are alone, running a large plant, and have to monitor the activities of people you know are hostile toward you, you need to harness the tension. Use it to propel you. It’s like forcing yourself to look under the bed as a child only to find nothing to be afraid of. Exhibit character, project fearlessness and seek resolution. The rank and file will sense change in the air.

I also handed out write ups like candy; there were plenty of reasons. After a short while the workforce generally got the message or so I thought.  

One night, while making my rounds, I came across four of the worst offenders. They were shooting dice for money. I immediately jumped in among them. I must admit I was mad they had the nerve to try that with me. There was some shouting but I barked louder and shut them down. I walked them all out and wrote down everything.  

No gambling was clearly stated in the plant rules. This time plant management backed me and all were suspended pending termination. After, we ran well and all was right with the world. 

However, the former employees got lawyers and were eventually brought back to my department six months later. Nevertheless, they learned their lesson and actually became valuable allies; they joined the effort and things went well. I even developed and delegated to them after a while. That’s a turnaround!

Companies have a tendency to put all of their rotten eggs in one basket and sometimes you become a victim of your own success. If you produce, and a shift or department can’t run without you, beware, you might get stuck there. It happened to me, marooned on the island of “misfit toys.” Promises of promotion evaporated because all they wanted was the numbers, so I left the place.

My erstwhile enemies joined in a terrific going-away party — all sorts of BBQ, baked goods, beverages and much respect. I was moved. One guy said, “Steve, It’s certainly been real; I wish you well.” There are few feelings greater than when an erstwhile foe offers you sincere best wishes.

Granted, your company may not have issues as severe as those described, but the point is the same.  A cohesive workforce is critical for success. Do what you must to keep the wheels on. If you have lost even partial control of your employees, at the very least you are losing money.

The change agent can only carry the ball so far. If you or your organization lacks conviction, every effort will falter, sending a dangerous signal to the agitators and making them stronger. Then all suffer. Take back what you have worked for. It’s stressful but you can do it. Then all will benefit.