“Cleaning house”: Is there (sometimes) a better way?

(Image courtesy of cliparts.co)

(Image courtesy of cliparts.co)

“It’s time to clean house.” “We’ve really got to do some house cleaning here.” “It’s time to back up the truck and clean out that house.”

How many times have we heard these phrases invoked in the context of organizations and work life? How many times have we used these phrases ourselves in the midst of expressing our exasperation over work situations that seemingly call for tossing out a bunch of current employees and replacing them with an influx of new people, presumably the “right ones” to help stage a turnaround?

But think about how those on the receiving end of the “let’s clean house” message feel: Threatened, defensive, disrespected, and vulnerable. This includes not only the low performers, but also a lot of the solid and outstanding performers as well. Granted, at times, wholesale changes are necessary, especially if the leadership team is severely lacking. However, the house cleaning theme may cause some of the best folks in the building to look for greener pastures.

Maybe there’s a better way. In his book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), coach and therapist Bruce Schneider builds a case study around his work with the CEO of a small company on the brink of extinction. This CEO came to realize that he had to change his ways, which included working more interactively and inclusively with his current workers, rather than pushing all of them out. As a result, the CEO revived his company and only one incumbent employee departed, after efforts to make that relationship work didn’t pan out.

It takes quality leadership to understand when wholesale changes are necessary versus when the keys to success are already in place, awaiting a better approach. At the very least, when we hear a manager or executive declaring that it’s time to clean house, it’s useful to dig beneath the surface and ask if this is the right way to go.


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