Freeing the Hostage

Kevin King —  July 9, 2013 — 5 Comments
By James LaRue, Guest Contributor

SetFreeSurely one of the most important decisions leaders make is hiring. But I’d like to write about something that needs even more attention: having a pointed conversation with someone who isn’t doing the job you pay them for.

Over a decade ago, I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating and panicked. I don’t remember the dream that woke me — but I remembered the point. The organization I led was held hostage by five people. That is, the essential changes we needed to make in order to thrive were consistently and effectively sabotaged by these staff members. And I was letting them.

I thought about it for the rest of the night. In the morning, I pulled together four of our supervisors (all part of the administrative team), and asked them the following questions:

* Had we been clear about where we were going and why? If leaders do not articulate a direction, they can hardly blame followers for not going there. I asked each of the supervisors, in their own words, to state that vision of the future. All of them could and did.

* Had the organization communicated that message — the direction, and the reasons for it — to all staff? Again, if expectations have never been passed along, that’s not the staff’s fault; it’s the supervisor’s. We reviewed our use of various channels — newsletters, department meetings, staff days — and concluded that we had communicated the direction, repeatedly. (Of course, communication is the sort of thing that can always be improved, too.)

* Was I wrong about these five individuals? I gave examples of specific behaviors they exhibited that directly contradicted or undermined our probable success. I asked if I had misjudged or misinterpreted their actions. Carefully, the other supervisors agreed that these behaviors did in fact constitute “holding the organization hostage” — vetoing through their actions or inactions clear organizational goals.

* Had anyone told the staff members the problem? To put it another way, how could we effect a reckoning, quickly accomplishing both awareness and change? Each of us directly supervised one of our problem staff members. Each of us had to address the issue.

Over the next few weeks, we gave ourselves two assignments.

First, we wrote a 25-word-or-less statement of the problem. That is, what was the specific, observable behavior on the part of the staff member that worked against our direction? We each wrote the description, then read it to each other, then revised that message until it was absolutely clear and fair.

Next, we practiced a 30 second talk with each other, assuming first the role of the supervisor, then the role of the staff member. That talk had a distinct 3-step script.

1. “Right now I need someone who ….” will do the following, or show up in the following way. An example might be, “demonstrates respect for fellow staff members as we try to solve problems.”

2. “Right now, that’s not you.” Then we had to give a recent example: “at our last staff meeting, you interrupted your colleague three times, rolled your eyes, and said ‘what a stupid idea!'”

3. “I want you to think about what we need, and whether you’re willing to do that. I’d like to make an appointment in a week, and you can tell me what you’ve decided.”

After we worked out the format, our team scheduled that first conversation with the staff member, and reported back the following week to the rest of our team.

There are several things I want to underscore about this approach. First, it puts the initial responsibility with the leaders. Be clear. Let people know what you expect from them.

Leaders must also act with honesty and respect. We have direct, polite, one-on-one conversations with people about important matters. We let them know that our primary responsibility is to the organization that pays us. And staff members have a choice: they can agree to accept that pay, and deliver, or decide that they would prefer not to. Their call.

This conversation is designed to be very brief and pointed. If leaders find themselves going on over a minute, they don’t know what they want to say. They’re prevaricating and apologizing.

Note that just as we hold staff accountable to the organization, we must also hold ourselves accountable to each other. Our leadership team got back together and debriefed about what worked and what didn’t, how it felt, and how we should respond next.

Note, too, that this direct conversation isn’t the final step. There are four probable outcomes.

1. The person tells you, “That’s not a direction I believe in or can support. I will resign.” (Incidentally, this frees them to find a job that they do believe in and can support.)

2. The person tells you, “You’ve made me realize that I have a concern. Can we talk about that? I might be able to do what you want with some more information or support.”

3. The person tells you, “I understand. I’ll strive to do better.”

4. The person tells you (though typically less directly), “I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing.”

In only one of those cases — the first — are you actually done. The person realizes that they’re a bad fit for the organizational need, and you can replace them.

But in the other three, there’s important and sometimes difficult follow-up. It requires, again, both clarity and courage on the part of the leader. “Nothing less than this is acceptable, and can be cause for termination.” But then you have to pay attention to see if they are actually doing what they’ve agreed to (work in exchange for pay), or if you have to document and act upon failure to perform.

Nonetheless, this first step of a forthright conversation with a non-performing staff member is absolutely crucial to organizational accomplishment. And the unwillingness to have it may be one of the biggest leadership failures in our profession.

LaRueJames LaRue as been the director of the Douglas County Libraries, headquartered in Castle Rock, CO, since 1990. He is the author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, and wrote a weekly newspaper column for over 25 years. He was the Colorado Librarian of the Year in 1998, the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Business Person of the Year, and in 2007 won the Julie J. Boucher (boo-SHAY) Award for Intellectual Freedom.  Jamie is a frequent keynote speaker for library associations. He has been a featured presenter for regional workshops, facilitator and presenter for staff days, a last-minute panelist, and a moderator and master of ceremonies for everything from debates to awards dinners. Lately, he has also been running hiring processes for non-profit and municipal CEOs. He particularly enjoys facilitating highly focused planning sessions for organizations that want to know what they do right, and what they need to do next.


Kevin King


Kevin King is the Head of Branch and Circulation Services at the Kalamazoo (MI) Public Library. Previously Kevin led Teen Services at KPL, where he helped build a nationally recognized program. Kevin has presented all over the country on many topics including teen services, innovation, graphic novels, and programming. As a member of ALA, YALSA, PLA and the Michigan Library Association, Kevin has served on various committees and has luckily won a couple of awards. In his spare time Kevin obsesses over the Detroit Tigers, listens to music and does his best to be a kick ass dad to Abigail and Rachael.

5 responses to Freeing the Hostage


    This is a powerful piece. It takes an uncomfortable situation and breaks it down into clear issues and actions. To me, this is what leadership is about–honesty, vision, structure/support, and communication.


    This is typical LaRue — Honest, head-on, insightful clarity about an aspect of interpersonals that many managers seem oblivious about… much to the detriment of the rest of their staff, customers and other stakeholders who are directly affected by bad behavior. Jamie has a well-deserved reputation around Douglas County for his ability to not just “talk about” problems like this, but to actually conceive and develop a direct approach to resolve such issues. Here, he is — true to form — right on target. Full disclosure: He’s also a good friend. Great article!

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