How to Tell Your People They're Worthless: An Interview with Paul LaRue


In this interview, Paul LaRue, creator at The UPwards Leader, discusses how you should and shouldn't lead a team. He tells a story about a colleague whose tactics made it difficult to lead a team, as well as what he learned from her many mistakes along the way. 

Josiah: Today, I'm joined by Paul LaRue, creator at The UPwards Leader. Paul, thank you very much for joining us.

Paul: Thank you, Josiah.

Josiah: All right. Could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry before we move forward?

Paul: Yeah. I grew up in the food service and hospitality industry and had different levels of leadership up through to director and senior leadership. One of the things I do now in addition to being a healthcare account executive for food distribution is I blog and do a lot of writing for different leadership articles, including the Lead Change Group and my own blog, the UPwards Leader, which I try to help develop the next generation of leaders to have some character and to try to do things a little cut above what's out there right now.

Josiah: Your LinkedIn article, “How to Tell Your People They're Worthless,” has quite the eye-catching title. It's really what actually drew me to getting in contact with you so we could talk. First off, could you talk about what inspired you to write something like this?

Paul: Really, it was kind of interesting. I had posted this on a blog and was trying to just pull that out a little bit. I had a little bit of some downtime to post something on LinkedIn and just figured, oh, I'll just go ahead and transfer this onto a LinkedIn post and was really surprised by the response. Just writing the title, I wanted to have something that people would delve into to just be curious a little bit about what that means. I think the context, when you read the article, really fits into what actually transpired in this situation.

Josiah: I agree. It's really with context that the headline makes sense. A lot about this article had to do with your former colleague, whose name is Micky. Can you talk a little bit about her grading strategy?

Paul: Sure. We worked for a restaurant company and we had a standardized grading practice for the different stations. It was basically to help with training and getting people to be proficient and ultimately get some kind of mastery in each station. I used the same form as she did.

Her strategy basically was as the manager, she always thought that she would be the standard on which it was measured more than the form itself. She always had the mindset that it was her standard, and there was always room for improvement, basically, so anybody couldn't get a hundred percent because no one is perfect, so there is always room to grow and everything. That's her mindset heading into all of that.

Josiah: How did this style of employee grading affect the team's morale?

Paul: I would say in the beginning it didn't really adversely affect it, but it was as it went on over the subsequent weeks and months that it became evident of what her mindset was towards her staff, and that all their hard work really didn't amount to anything because they weren't getting the acknowledgment. I think over time, it definitely started to snowball and the staff started to get a little more disengaged with really trying to put out any effort for her.

Josiah: Absolutely. As leaders, I always feel like we should try to push the team members to be better. You're always pushing someone to get to a higher point and not stay stagnant. However, the high standards that Micky demanded really made it difficult for her group to achieve its goals. What about her expectations made the team underperform?

Paul: There was a lot of statements that she would talk about "I" and "me," so it was, again, using herself as the benchmark. She never encouraged anybody. She never really tried to spur them on or try to install a desire to get better. She would never give of herself to help out. It was pretty much she would leave people to their own devices to figure out you didn't score perfectly, you didn't show any improvement, and didn't do anything to help get them to where they needed to be, left them pretty much on their own.

Josiah: You had talked about speaking a lot about the "I" and the "me" and using yourself as a reference. In general, a lot of us can be selfish. It can be hard to not be selfish, use yourself as your own reference. Do you have advice to be able to break out of that, to be able to not look at everything from a "me" perspective but look at everything from maybe a "you" or an "us" perspective?

Paul: I think the first thing is just to get … As a leader, even myself I've had to do this over the years, really take your eyes off of yourself. I think a lot of times, particularly nowadays, it seems people are in such a survival mode in the workplace that if you focus on others and the reason you're there, particularly if you're a manager or a leader of some kind, you have responsibilities to get the best out of people, to focus on them primarily.

Then if you can get them to do well and to grow and everything, your job ends up being easier. In some ways, it's an inverted selfishness, if I could say. If you want your job to be easier and to not have the pressure of what's going on, get other people, get that foundation of other people underneath you and that will really help the entire workplace; it really brings the team closer together. You have to think about doing that first before you think of any benefit to yourself.

Josiah: To branch off that same frame of thinking, do you think that enough team leaders appreciate the individuals that keep the ship afloat?

Paul: I think some leaders do. I particularly think if you have a strong culture in an individual unit or in a total organization, that does exist and there are some strong leaders who are very effective leaders that can do that in spite of the culture. In large, I think there is a lot of disconnect in most companies that prevent that from happening, but I think the companies that have a very strong culture, you'll see that's pretty evident.

Josiah: Can you talk a bit about the impact of non-verbal communication within a team? You discuss a little bit of it in your article, but can you give a little more detail?

Paul: Right. I think it's that classic cliché that actions speak louder than words. I think leaders don't understand what they portray, if you're saying one thing and your body language is doing something else. You have to be pretty holistic in your leadership approach. If your arms are crossed, if you're looking aside, if you're rolling your eyes; in the article there, Micky is huffing away. Just those things that tell people that they're not important, you're not in tune with what they're doing, or, yeah, you might say that you're behind them, but your body language is saying otherwise.

You really need to have mastery over yourself as a leader and be able to with everything, verbal, non-verbal, physical, really make sure that your people trust you and that they can have that assurance that they're doing fine. If you have body language that's contrary to that, you've undermined everything you claim to be.

Josiah: As a leader, I think it does come with a certain amount of pride. Even if you are a selfless person, I think you do need to take some sort of pride in your work. What do you see as healthy pride? What type of pride can actually be damaging to both yourself and the team?

Josiah: Right. I think you just touched on it, the pride in your work. Even yourself, if you have pride in the job you do. Not in the pride of look what I did, but, hey, do you see what happened here? Look at the teamwork, look at the level of customer service, look at the quality of the product that was provided and knowing that you did your best to help facilitate that, that's a healthy level of pride as an individual leader. The more it can be less about yourself, your reputation, your credibility and more about doing the right thing because that's what you are there for, I think those are good healthy levels of pride that everyone should aspire to.

Josiah: Absolutely. We're going to move into the last question. I really do appreciate your time, Paul.

Paul: Sure.

Josiah: What do you believe is the ideal way to grade individual members of a team?

Paul: I think it's all about being open and honest. Micky was honest with how she graded, but she took away from that basically by her grading. Just telling people, hey, you know what, it's the grading or the way we're measured and you're not meeting the standards, I'm here to help. I think the approach should be we're going to do this as a training opportunity, as a way for you to grow, as a way for you to get better and to have mastery over your job. I think a leader's mindset should be primarily that every day is a training day. I'm here to help get more out of my people as far as them getting better, as far as them feeling like they can add value to the organization, that they feel like they're achieving some success in what they do, they can have a healthy level of pride in their job.

Having that, and then when it comes to evaluation time or grading that you look on it and say, hey, look at the progress you've done and really acknowledge all of that. Besides the hard matrix of whether it's a pass/fail or whatever the grading system is, that there has been some dialogue and some support behind all that to help the employees to do a better job and to succeed.

Josiah: Absolutely. Once again, Paul, I really appreciate your time and hope that I can talk to you again in the future about different leadership topics.

Paul: That sounds great, Josiah.


Paul LaRuePaul LaRue is a creator at The UPwards Leader, as well as a developer of business, leadership, and brands with a focus in hospitality, retail, entertainment, and healthcare industries. He's successfully developed leaders in reaching various levels up through senior management. 

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