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Beware of the ladder shakers

Russ Kathrein leadership column header

Whether you have had the chance to lead in your LBM business or in your community, everyone gets an opportunity to test their leadership skills when they start a family. Once your children get old enough, you often find yourself leading them in the role of coach as they learn how to act and succeed in their social settings, and this is when you can teach them about ladder shakers.

One of my children was stepping out of his comfort zone and thinking about trying a new sport. All he could talk about was how much he wanted to succeed at this new sport. A couple days later when I came home from work, he informed me that after talking with his best buddies he had changed his mind, or in reality, they had changed his mind for him. This was where I needed to sit him down and talk about peer pressure and setting his own course, but he was still rather young, so I made up a story that I thought he might understand better. As it turns out, it is a story that we all can relate to.

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I sat him down and said, “Pretend that you walk into a room and it is filled with nothing but ladders that go as far up as the eye can see. There is nothing else in the room and you have all the time in the world. What do you think you might do?” Without hesitating he said, “I think I would start climbing one of the ladders.” I asked him why, and he told me, “Because I would be curious about where the ladders went to and I would want to find out.” I smiled because I really liked his answer, and then said, “Okay, now let’s pretend some other people, maybe your friends, walk into the room. They see the ladders, but they think it looks too hard to climb up the ladders. So, they decide to just stay put in the room at the bottom of all those ladders. Would that be okay?” “Sure,” he said, “They can do whatever they want.”

Now I got a little more serious and said, “Here’s the problem. Sometimes people, even our friends, will be sitting at the bottom of the ladders and look up to see you climbing the ladder. They may yell up and ask what you are doing. Maybe they will change their mind and join you in climbing, but more often than not, they will feel bad that you were climbing the ladder and they are not. Instead of climbing the ladder, do you know what they sometimes do? They will shake the ladder to try and get you to come down. Sometimes it might be gently to get you to change your mind, other times it will be violently to get you to fall off. Either way, they know that they will feel better if you are sitting next to them at the bottom of the ladder. You have to be ready for people who want to shake you off of a ladder that you have set your mind to climb.” This seemed to make an impression on him, and the story stuck in our future coaching conversations. Eventually, it just became shortened down to “Look out for the ladder shakers.”

In our careers, we all have come in contact with ladder shakers. Whether it was the classmate who talked you out of applying to a school, a friend who changed your mind about asking someone out, or a co-worker who told you to stop working so hard because you were making everyone else look bad. As leaders, we have to be on the lookout for the perpetual ladder shakers because they are toxic to your company’s culture. A ladder shaker does not speak up and voice objections to an idea or go after a new opportunity. Instead, they seem to agree with what is happening, but then they work subversively, often unintentionally, for the idea to fail or for the effort of chasing an opportunity to stop. Sometimes they present themselves as “looking after everyone’s own good” or as a keeper of the company’s culture. Often they’ll say, “But that’s not how we do things here.” That’s what makes these employees so toxic because they are people who operate in the shadows of the company or whisper in people’s ears, while you are at the front of the line trying to motivate and lead your troops. Michael Houseman and Dylan Minor published a paper for Harvard Business School on toxic workers. They analyzed the economic benefit of removing a toxic worker versus adding a competent employee. They found it was four times more advantageous to fire the toxic worker than it was to add a good employee. This is probably because a toxic worker will often “shake the ladder” of a good employee and make them perform at a diminished level, or even quit.

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So, while it is important to be on the lookout for good employees and new ideas that can help grow and shape your business, it is just as important to be on the lookout for the toxic employees within your organization who will subtly work against new ideas, or shake the ladder of those new people you hire who want to start climbing at your company.


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