Leadership Communication Case Study – How Some Leaders Undermine Morale, Motivation & Performance Without Realizing It – Pt. 1

Last week I had a meeting with a prospective client who at some point in the not too distant future is going to ask me to work with him.

He was explaining to me how he had recently lost trust in one of his key employees because this employee violated an articulated, but unwritten, company policy regarding the use of company-owned credit cards.

This forward thinking business owner provides all of his technicians, on the road in company vehicles, credit cards to be used strictly for company purchases, primarily fuel for the trucks they drive but also for miscellaneous items they made need to fulfill customer service while in the field.

In this situation the technician used his company card for personal reasons when his personal card was declined while making a gift purchase for his wife during a recent holiday. As the discussion with this employee ensued and the apology was asked for and accepted, this employee voluntarily admitted to a similar but smaller purchase indiscretion a few months prior.

In the interest of maintaining the  positive attitude and high-morale of an otherwise high-performing employee much needed in the field to fulfill present levels of customer service demands at a busy time of year, the business owner gave this employee a verbal reprimand and they came to an agreement that this would not happen again putting the incident behind them.

The incident was put behind with one slight caveat.

The business owner decided to rescind all credit cards issued to each of this technicians in the field to replace them with specific brand-only gas cards, such as a Hess or Exxon-Mobil card that can only be used at fill-up stations.

Recently I presented a webinar on “The Secrets of the Goldilocks ‘Just Right’ Leadership Style” in which I discussed three distinct leadership approaches, one of them I call “Command & Control,” the opposite style is “Avoid & Let Go,” and the third that I work with my executive leadership clients to become is “Engage & Enroll.”

Approaching an employee relationship issue in this manner is on the “Command & Control” side of the continuum.

In the discussion I had with this business owner, who said his focus when communicating with his staff was always on maintaining high-levels of morale, I asked him “how might his communication style and focus be actually hurting morale?”

He had no answer. He was confused. He couldn’t understand how his communication style could be hurting employee morale since he was communicating in a such a supportive, forgiving and empathetic manner.

This type of leadership communication is detrimental to high levels of employee morale, motivation and trust in the workplace. And, also high levels of performance because this is not Champion Leadership Communication!

I am going to explain why in my blog article next week…

in the meantime, in the interest of encouraging discussion I ask that you leave a comment with your thoughts as to how you would handle a similar situation if you were leading this company and why.

I look forward to reading and assessing your leadership communication solutions!

‘til next time, make it a great weekend!

27 thoughts on “Leadership Communication Case Study – How Some Leaders Undermine Morale, Motivation & Performance Without Realizing It – Pt. 1

  1. Jeffrey says:

    “Punishing the many for the sins of the few”. SOP in many organizations, especially government. He is communicating distrust of all employees holding the cards by placing a restriction on them. The employees aren’t stupid. They can read between the lines that someone violated the usage agreement. They are being told, nonverbally, that because one individual screwed up, none of them are to be trusted. So many “leaders” don’t understand that trust is a bilateral agreement; you trust me, I trust you.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Sorry misread the posting request.

    The owner had resolved the problem with his face to face meeting with the individual and issued a verbal reprimand. No further action is necessary and certainly not by replacing the credit cards with gas only cards. This potentially restricts the ability of his work force to fulfill cusotmer needs should minor purchases other than petrol be needed. He has implied to his staff that he no longer trusts them to purchase anything other than petrol.

  3. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for being the first to chime in on this topic. I thought you posted the first time appropriately and also appreciate your further comments, too.

    It’s interesting that you say this is “SOP in many organizations.” I look forward to hearing from others as to their experience with how you defined (“Punishing the many for the sins of the few”), what I wrote about.

    Before I comment specifically on your thoughts I will wait for other to share their thoughts and I appreciate your comments. Please check back next week when I offer my thoughts and advice on this case study.

  4. Gwen says:

    It appears the business owner has some confrontation issues. He is afraid to address the real issue head one. He has an employee stealing from his company and he simply gives a verbal warning. When this employee is in dire need and needs to purchase necessities like gas and gas station food (instead of a gift for his wife), he will likely continue to steal from the company. The owner doesn’t feel good about this happening and feels he need to show some authority, so he changes the rules for the group making it slightly more difficult for this employee to steal from the company.

  5. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and assessment. You make some very valid points!

  6. Rajeev.M.N says:

    I completely agree with Jeffrey. A deviance on the part of one person tends to be bracketed and action initiated in respect of everyone leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Unfortunately this command & control style continue to thrive even amidst all sorts of sweet talk proclaiming employees are our most important assets.
    What we need is to teach senior executives actual behaviour examples of respecting employees in various situations.

  7. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    You make a great point about the cognitive dissonance organizational leaders sometimes exhibit between their verbal proclamations and their actions. Thanks for stopping by and being inspired to leave a comment.

  8. Brian says:

    Instead of taking his learning and using the opportunity to write and clearly communicate a proper policy on how to properly use his credit cards, he just changed them to less useful cards and sent his people the “I don’t trust you to use them properly” message.

  9. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for your comments and points. I appreciate you taking the time to add value to this discussion.

  10. Kerry Starrett says:


    There needs to be a written credit card policy developed that is communicated to all impacted employees. There should be no question regarding the conditions of credit card use in the company. To not have a policy just invites this type of “misunderstanding” or “pushing the limits”, since it has been left to individual interpretation. The conditions of card usage should be clear, and potential actions that will be taken in the event of card misuse should be spelled out in the policy.

    Once policy has been developed and adopted, it should be formally communicated throughout the company and employees should be required to review and sign an acknowledgement.

    The policy roll out should be on a “going forward” basis, since prior to publishing the policy, the conditions regarding how to use the credit cards may have been left to employee interpretation. Reason for the policy can be explained as an effort to provide better communication and understanding of company guidelines. Employees appreciate knowing what is expected of them.

    This levels the playing field and everyone knows and understands the expectations. This helps keep the lines of communication open in a company which helps build the trust. Trust that is developed and leveraged is a powerful tool.

  11. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for stopping by and being inspired to contribute this comprehensive approach to this situation. I look forward to future comments from you that continue to add value to our discussions here.

  12. Bernie Long says:

    Company Credit Cards are a great tool for business and organizations, but can be a bane with some employees. I am lead to believe that this highly productive employee certainly has a “way” of getting thing done and using a tool in his reach produced an outcome. His admission to a previous purchase shows some remorse and a desire to remain trusted by his employer.
    I agree with Kerry that it is essential to articulate a written company policy, with signed acceptance, regarding the credit cards. Mistakes do happen, but you need policy to handle intentional and deliberate thefts.
    I would wonder if a discussion with his service technicians regarding “what works for them” could determine if a full scope credit card is necessary, or perhaps most would do just fine with a fuel card. Now the employee is part of that decision and if they feel that because of their ability to service clients through expanded purchases, they also must carry the burden of higher responsibility.

  13. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for stopping by and adding value to the discussion on this topic.
    I appreciate your thoughts! Please come back and comment often.

  14. JOMA says:

    In the first place i agree that credit card use to employees is looking for trouble, but it happens a lot and therefore strict company policies should be in place in that regard.
    In the specific circumstances with this “hands-on” employee, there was a meeting between himself and the manager, it was discussed and the apology was accepted by the manager and it clearly stated – “put the matter behind them”

    The manager clearly accepted the apology, agree to put it behind them. This is where the employer /employee trust was “fixed”, according to the meeting, but ……… the manager shows this employee that in fact he do not trust him and therefore change the credit cards to only fuel cards to all the employees who most definately knows about the one person who misused the card and now they all are punished. That could cause friction between manager and employees.

    In the same hand, i must agree with the manager as now there won’t be any tempt to misuse the cards as there is only fuel cards, but feel that he must have prior to this incident put a policy in place which could have prevent such an incident.

  15. walter daniels says:

    This backfires on two counts. 1) He no longer trusts any employees, in spite of his statements. 2) What if they need to buy something for a job completion, and can’t? That won’t sit well with clients.

  16. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    You make some great points, thanks for sharing and adding value to the conversation!

  17. Adam Hommey says:

    Three issues I see here, that all go hand-in-hand (and not in a way that helps anyone).

    First of all, the employee in question did commit a transgression. They were confronted, they admitted it, and they even fessed up to another error in judgment without being asked. They were disciplined according to policy. The lesson taught here: be honest, own your mistakes, and work to reclaim your integrity, and we’ll punish everyone as if all of you have been willfully stealing from us.

    Second: the corollary lesson – all good deeds get punished. Not that the employee misusing the card was a good deed, but he’s among the minority who realized he compromised his own integrity and claimed his choice to be forthcoming and actively participate in finding a better way going forward. If you make a mistake, the worst thing you can possibly do is own up to it. Your best bet is to not get caught. Yeah, that will help this culture grow. Uh huh. Sure.

    Third: you have management that looks for ways to invent crises that don’t really exist. Ten years ago I worked in a cube farm, someone was highly disrespectful to me so I showed my displeasure by making an obscene gesture behind their back. Someone saw it and reported it to me. I faced and dealt with the consequences and took my lesson. What was not necessary were multiple management meetings to discuss “environmental issues” and “understanding of the hierarchy” that went on for two months afterward. The lesson it taught me was the same: don’t get caught. They had me at personal responsibility. They lost me when they turned it into a power trip involving three dozen people who weren’t even there when I did it.

    There’s my $0.02, hope it helps in some way.

    – ARH

  18. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thanks for adding value to the discussion. All your points have tremendous value and point out some of the lack of efficiency some organizations have when dealing with performance and behavior issues, often times just to justify someone’s own self-esteem and power.

    BTW, your contribution was worth much more than $.02!

  19. Daniel Schmitt says:

    I love Adam’s responses; management out of control. Instead of someone saying to him “Hey man, the other person was out of line but you shouldn’t retaliate. Knock it off.” he got two months of sensitivity training. No wonder people get fed up with corporate America. As for the credit card incident, it seems that we only have half the story. We don’t know anything about the other staff and their thoughs on the matter. Also, the owner probably should have given the program more time and the employee another chance.

  20. Harold Lamma says:

    This is a great article, and it gives the mindfulness of every leader an opportunity to distinguish their own outcome. Policy and procedure play a significant role in the smooth operation of an organization, team, or business structure. In the same instance; it can create rigidity and second guessing if clarity is not established.

    Communication as a group on the intent of the credit card may have not been fully understood by all the members, as assumption seemed to come into play. Of course we all know as humans, we don’t always do the correct thing.

    Company officers have the responsibility to keep their organizations working effectively and efficiently. Can we assume that the employer made a bad decision by making sure this will not happen again? If it is his company; he is responsible, and allowed to do what he see’s fit to remedy any conflict that may arise.

    On a personal note; the employee did confess to the owner, and to something even greater; himself or herself. We don’t know the mindset of the employer at the time of the change in the cards, we can only assume his decision was the proper one at the time.
    Everyone of us see’s through a different set of eye’s, and will always make the decision that seems best at the time.

    If I was to judge this situation as I saw fit; would I have enough information on this issue to do so? I do not!

    Great Article……..

  21. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for your comments and adding value to the discussion. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by and be inspired to leave a comment.
    I look forward to having you contribute again in the future.

  22. Gordon McAleer says:

    This is a timely subject – a leader wants to set the right tone for mutual trust. Staight and open communications with the employee in question is key. It is fine to give the person a second chance. It there is a lapse in the future, then the answer is the person cannot be trusted. The action taken by the leader in this case reminds me of some of the negatives I had when in the Army, years ago. The typical approach was to “discipline” the entire small unit in training for the screw-ups of one soldier. This only encouraged the rest of the unit to take reprecussions against the misfit – unproductive for building a team.

  23. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    You make a great point. So many business leaders are frustrated by the lack of teamwork and don’t realize how their communication style and how they choose to approach things sabotage other efforts and energy put into teamwork. They preach teamwork, they ask for teamwork and harp on teamwork being important and can’t understand why. When they ask the team members what the problem with teamwork is or how to make it better they get blank stares or lip service and nothing ever changes. All are left to wonder why. Thanks, again for contributing and adding value to the discussion!

  24. Renu says:

    Hi Skip:
    Great article and different points of view from many respondents of handling the situation. I personally think that changing the credit card to Gas only still is not a very good way of handling the situation as it does not restrict the employees from using the Gas credit card in filling their own cards instead of company cars, well if they came around to stealing. I think the trust issue requires a lot of thought process before changing any systems and certainly one sin should not punish the group. Policy, open communication, plan to reprimand for deviation from policy, putting people under surveillance are some of the approaches. We have seen some instances in the workplaces where such incidences have happened but never heard of the drastic changes of credit card.
    You can change the behaviour of staff by the above approaches, however, integrity and loyalty for the company and honesty are some of the value issues amongst staff members that are sometimes hard to control and punishing the individual is the only way to go.

  25. Igor says:

    This is an old article, and I did but read Skip’s follow up take on it, but the appropriate response seems straightforward.

    The credit cards were useful tools of the trade. In this particular case, the employee found it useful for his own purposes, when his personal card was declined for some reason. The employee definitely felt good about his company, when that card saved his bacon at the till — a valuable thing in itself for a manager who values employee moral.

    So the thing that made sense after the incident was a communication about the credit card usage stating that employees are trusted to use it only for company purchases but allows for emergency personal use with a clear procedure of how to reimburse the company for personal spending. Then, a written statement to the same needs to follow with employees singing it.


    – Igor

  26. Skip Weisman says:

    Thank you for your comments, I appreciate your suggestions here as a follow up to mine. Yes, this is an old article, but the topic is timeless, isn’t it. Your strategy is right on and a great contribution to this conversation. Thanks for stopping by and being inspired to continue the conversation. Please come back again.

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