I watched it unfold in front of me as I sat in the lobby of a large office high-rise downtown. The lobby was populated with dozens seated in quasi-comfortable chair groupings waiting for their escort upstairs. There were security personnel present, as well as a crew of green-thumbs trimming, clipping and watering the greenery in the space.

A group of executives walking together toward the elevator caught my attention, as they were engaged in a heated discussion. That’s when it happened. The one who appeared to have the highest ranking in the group stopped, mid-stride, and turned on one of the others. “What the @#&% were you THINKING? Any monkey in kindergarten could have seen that this would happen! Do I pay you to just pick your nose?!” All conversation in the lobby stopped. The other three junior-executives moved ever so slightly away from the unfortunate target of this man’s ire, leaving him spatially isolated with all eyes in the lobby on him.

I thought to myself, “That’s a working relationship that will never be productive again, if it ever was.”

Of course, I don’t know anything about the situation that created such rage in the executive. I imagine it had to be very bad to trigger a meltdown of such magnitude in public. Nonetheless, regardless of how horrible the mistake may have been, this was a conversation that should have been postponed until three things were in place:

  • They were in private – Always praise someone in public. Question or criticize them in private. The question of “what were you thinking?” should have been asked behind closed doors, one-on-one.
  • The executive had control of his emotions – If you are not in emotional control, you are ineffective. I have never met anyone (ANYone) who has told me that being verbal abused by their supervisor had built respect for that supervisor in their eyes. Once that fabric of trust is fractured it can never be rebuilt.
  • The executive had scripted words for himself that would not immediately put the underling on the defensive and shut him down – Whatever the mistake was, it was done. The verbal focus would now need to shift to what have we learned from this (you, me, the company), and how can we prevent it from ever happening again? Those questions will only effectively be answered when asked in a respectfully-assertive, non-abusive manner.

Communication in leadership requires consistent discipline. It requires empathy, compassion, clarity, emotional control and a personal commitment to never, NEVER humiliate someone in public.