Tough Love In the Workplace


In this article, I will tell you why it is important leaders should practise tough love.

Let’s start by looking at the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “tough love”:

“Promotion of a person’s welfare, especially an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions.”

So how is that applicable to the workplace?

Tough love is about setting boundaries (parameters) within which employees are required to perform, and applying consequences to those employees who intentionally choose to work outside those boundaries.

Tough love is not about being demanding or aggressive. In fact, to practise tough love effectively, you need to remain calm and rational.

Tough love is about being truthful with yourself and the individuals concerned:

  • Are the boundaries well defined?
  • Have they been satisfactorily communicated and are they understood?
  • Are the consequences of failing to work inside those boundaries understood?

Tough love is about holding employees accountable for their actions and behaviour. The truth is that unless people accept accountability for their behaviour there will be no change in behaviour.

demos-tough-loveThe bosses of that time would probably argue with me, but in the mid-1980s the industrial policy at Port Kembla Steelworks was one of appeasement: “Don’t rock the boat.” Consequently, supervisors would give what I call ‘the thousand friendly warnings’ or instructions.

You know the type I mean: “Put your glasses on Joe!… Joe, how many times do I have to tell you to put your glasses on?… Joe, this must be the tenth time this month I’ve told you to put your glasses on!”

What happened as soon as the supervisor’s back was turned? The glasses would come off again. Because there were no consequences for repeated non-compliance, there was no change in behaviour. In reality, behaviour deteriorated. As some employees realised there were no consequences for poor or unsafe behaviour, they pushed the boundaries.

When we as supervisors and managers changed our behaviour and started to practise tough love, we brought about a change in our people. Many leaders are reluctant to set boundaries and provide feedback for fear that their workforce will not like them.

Here’s what Colin Powell (American general and statesman) has to say on that subject:

“Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organisation.”

A leader’s role is to nurture and develop their people. To do that, you need to challenge them. “Like” doesn’t necessarily come into it, but respect does. Earn your people’s respect:

  • Set clear well-defined boundaries.
  • Ensure the consequences of intentionally working outside the boundaries are well understood.
  • Consequences must be applied for both good and bad behaviour.

See next week for part 2, which contains two stories where the application of tough love had a beneficial impact on the people involved.

Jim Neilson provides a mentoring service to company managers and frontline leaders. The expertise he provides is based on the learnings he gained from his experiences and safety journey as an Operations Supervisor and Manager at BlueScope Steel’s Port Kembla works.


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