Natural Consequences Go Both Ways

There is a certain flow to the universe; a balance. When there is an action, a reaction of some kind is sure to follow. A cause has a subsequent effect. And every decision has a consequence. If you poke a hungry, hungry hippo, your arm will get eaten. Similarly, if you decide to skip work for a week without calling in, that promotion you were hoping for isn’t going to happen because, as Arnold once said, “You’re terminated.” 

Each decision has a natural consequence. It’s the way of things. In an organizational context, management practitioners talk about the concept of natural consequences for certain employee behaviors. 

For example, an employee who flat out refuses to work naturally can’t continue his employment. A business needs to make money in order to survive and cannot keep a deadbeat employee on its payroll. A good manager would explain these natural consequences (in much nicer terms, of course).  

I’m a fan of the phrase natural consequences. I much prefer it to “disciplinary action” because the latter implies some sort of parent/child relationship. You don’t discipline other adults. You’re no better than they are. You don’t sit on some higher plane of existence than they do. As your employees, you have an agreement with them, and if either of you fails to live up to your side of the bargain, there will naturally be consequences. However, managers tend to only think of these consequences relative to employee conduct. I can assure you, though, the door of natural consequences swings both ways. And if you’re not careful about treating your employees well, that door will indeed swing back and hit ya right where the Good Lord split ya.

What exactly am I talking about? 

Disengagement. Absenteeism. Presenteeism. Burnout. Turnover. Unionization. Low productivity. Errors and defects. Increased costs. Unhappy customers. Bad publicity. Lawsuits. 

Get the picture?

These are all natural consequences of a negative employee experience. If you bully your employees, overwork them, have unrealistic expectations for them, deny them opportunities for advancement, don’t give them the tools or resources they need, or force them to work in uncomfortable, unsanitary, or dangerous conditions, then something will happen as a result. And it won’t be something you’ll like.

That something might be disengagement or what managers would perceive to be “disloyalty.” 

A few years ago, several DirecTV contractors gave a television interview explaining that the company cut their pay after they were unable to upsell customers a telephone service they did not want. The contractors were subsequently fired for airing their grievances to the public and making the company look bad. A lawsuit led to the National Labor Relations Board stepping in on the contractors’ behalf. The Board ordered DirecTV’s subcontractor, MasTec, to reinstate their employment because they had engaged in what is called “protected concerted activity” to collectively address work conditions. 

The DirecTV contractors hadn’t acted out of malicious spite. They were acting on human nature. It is a natural human response to seek justice when we are wronged. And, as a society, we naturally cannot allow employers to prevent their workers from engaging in activity aimed at improving their working conditions. That’s why we have laws like the National Labor Relations Act.

It seems that there is a double standard in the modern workplace. Employers hold their workforce accountable for production, acceptable conduct, quality, service excellence, loyalty, engagement. Employees’ failure to live up to a certain standard results in consequences. Accountability is unilateral, apparently. Or is it? 

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “shit rolls downhill.” It’s a crude way of saying any abuse, mistakes, poor decisions, senseless processes, and crazy goals eventually make their way down the organizational hierarchy and land squarely in employees’ laps. There are indeed natural consequences for hurling the proverbial “shit” at employees and expecting them just to make the best of it. Natural consequences, in some form or another, hold employers accountable for whatever they send rolling downhill.

Take bullying, for instance. Employees respond to fear-based management in different ways, with passive aggression being one of them. Recent studies have even shown that employees who engage in passive aggressive retaliation — like slowing productivity — against their abusive bosses experience lower stress levels as a side benefit of “sticking it to the man.” There will always be some form of consequence for bad boss behavior, whether that’s withholding discretionary effort, taking more sick days due to stress, or passing the abuse on to customers. Cause/effect. Negative employee experience/natural consequence. 

The takeaway here is to understand that, as an employer, there are consequences for the way your treat your employees. If you mistreat them, they will eventually burn out, check out, act out, step out, or freak out. It’s called being human. As inconvenient a truth it may be, you do business with and work with humans. Employees expect to be treated fairly, with respect and compassion. That’s not unreasonable; it’s only natural. It’s your end of the employment bargain. When you renege on that deal . . . well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

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