I recently had a friend call me with a problem. She had an IT professional who knew a lot about her company, because he had worked for her for a number of years, and he was demanding a raise.
To make matters worse, he wasn’t sharing any of the critical information about the infrastructure that he had built, and he had all the passwords. Since he felt that he was in control, he insisted on, rather than asked for, a pay increase. My friend said, “Well, let’s talk about this.”
However, the individual who was holding her hostage said, “You know there’s nothing to talk about. You just need to trust me.” She was being held hostage in her business.
It reminded me of all the times that I have seen this in business. This is an extreme example. In most cases, the examples are more subtle, so we actually give in to these hostage takers.
I remember the first hostage taker I ever saw. It was back in 2003, and we were working with a regional bank. I had not seen this phenomenon before, because I had only been in business for about 10 years at this point.
My team and I went to visit this fast-growing bank to talk about implementing some of our technology into their system. It was a nice meeting with some very intelligent people, but they said, “We need to wait for George.” (Obviously, that’s not his real name.)
I said, “That’s fine, we’ll wait for George.”
After a few minutes of small talk, George finally showed up, but he had a nasty attitude. He came in there and abused everyone in the room. In a gruff voice, he said, “What’s this meeting about? Why are we here?”
In response, the other members asked my team to give a presentation, and we did. However, George continued his abusive behavior. He said, “Well, that’s not going to work here.”
Surprisingly, everyone just defaulted to what George was saying.
I thought, “This is weird.” So, I asked some questions: “George, What’s your role in the business?”
In a pompous and arrogant voice, he said, “I’m the lead technician here.”
In the room there was a manager and a vice president, yet everybody acquiesced to George, the lead technician.
After he left, I tried to get to the bottom of it. I asked, “What’s George’s main job? What does he do? What’s his role?”
“Well, George is our visionary. He has to help us figure out what technology we need.”
I asked, “Why is that?”
“George built all the technology here, and we really need him.”
George had basically pushed these guys into a corner and had forced them to give him a special role. Then, he would go into meetings and dictate what they were and were not going to do. They all listened to him, because no one wanted to cross George. He knew the systems, and he could pull the plug at any moment if he chose to. He was literally holding this company hostage and making all the decisions.
By the way, this is not just an IT problem. We see this in sales and in operations, too. In fact, sales is where I see it the most. This scenario happens in all parts of the business.
Here are a few signs that you’re being held hostage in a business:
- You can’t start a meeting without this person.
- You can’t make a decision without his or her input.
- Everyone has to default to this person.
- Everyone else is stepping on eggshells.
You really know you’ve got a potential hostage taker if you fear this person will leave. If you have a destructive person—but you can’t let them leave— you have a hostage taker, especially if this person has some knowledge or capabilities in your business that force you to give in to him or her.
I have seen this type of situation played out far too often. While I can’t promise you that everything will be okay if you let this person go, I can promise you one thing: over the long run, you will have a significant gain. This has been the case in every scenario that I have seen. You may run into some problems. He or she may make things difficult for you. I know there will be pain in the short term, but in the long term, your business will benefit from the decision to let this person go.
We typically see these hostage takers in smaller businesses, and they have to be moved out, especially as the business gets bigger. Everyone else in the business is being affected by this person and not growing as a professional, because the others are relinquishing all their decision-making capabilities to the hostage taker.
I am telling you an important truth: Do not negotiate with hostage takers. There’s no room in your business for these dangerous and destructive people. Move these people out of your business. It’s the only way that they will learn. Once they’ve progressed to the point of hostage taking, you can’t convince them to change their minds.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors, West Michigan Scaling Up Coach