One of my first ever bosses was a hard-headed, old-school business leader who was known for his gruffness and direct approach.  He operated by two simple rules with his team. Never lie and quickly admit if you screw up, even if it is minor. If you adhered to these two simple rules he promised to “have your back 100%” even if things got rough.

There was only one time that I recall one of our team members broke the rules. Something went wrong with a project and we were scrambling to try and fix it quickly to meet a rapidly approaching deadline. It was all hands on deck and we worked through the night. When we eventually found the problem it was relatively easy to fix. The leader was furious because he had figured out who had caused the problem and he knew that the person responsible for it knew that he knew. He confronted the person and he initially denied it before finally breaking down and admitting the truth.

The boss’ response was something like “I told you that I would have your back at all times as long as you didn’t break the team rules or the law. You knew that and I have delivered my end for the 2 years you have been here. You broke both rules tonight and you did it for your own self-preservation. You made three of your team pull an all-nighter when you could have just said I know where the problem is. Instead you hoped your screw up would go unnoticed and you could avoid blame. I know you are young but your behaviour today was inexcusable. Its time you grew up. We all make mistakes. That’s how we learn. Don’t try to cover it up and don’t be defensive. You have diminished yourself in front of your team tonight and it will take some time for them to trust you again.”

It was a hard, unpleasant lesson for the person involved. But a necessary one. At its core was an unwillingness to tolerate ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, even single, isolated events. My boss knew that, left unchecked, behaviour like this can spread, impact performance and, in the worst cases, destabilise an organisation. That’s why he ‘outlawed’ lies and cover-ups for anyone in his team. It worked too and everyone knew where they stood and what was expected of them. Sometimes the simplest rules are the best ones…