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3 minutes reading time (656 words)

The Two Pillars of Justice

two pillars of justiceIn the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical Biblical interpretation, there is a saying that the two pillars of justice are mercy and severity. The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongdoings. The pillar of severity represents the law of karma – that we must reap what we sow.

 

In the Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical Biblical interpretation, there is a saying that the two pillars of justice are mercy and severity. The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongdoings. The pillar of severity represents the law of karma – that we must reap what we sow.

When it comes to the workplace, justice needs both pillars. The pillar of severity upholds accountability for performance and following policy. The pillar of mercy considers the circumstances and makes exceptions in individual cases.

In years of consulting for the natural foods industry, I’ve rarely met an owner or manager who I considered too severe. But I’ve met some who were too “merciful.” In those cases, the care and compassion given to some employees operated to the detriment of others. 

When some employees are allowed to perform poorly while the others must “pick up the slack,” or when some are allowed to break the rules while others are expected to obey them, resentment festers and teamwork suffers. In these situations, employees tend to interpret their leader’s leniency as favouritism. 

One sign that an organization may be relying too much on the pillar of mercy is when performance problems get viewed as interpersonal conflicts. For example, an employee approaches a manager to point out that a coworker is being inefficient, or is frequently late, or always looking at their phone, or is doing some task contrary to the procedure that the manager laid out. It’s appropriate for the manager to ask the employee to talk directly with their coworker about the problem. But still the manager needs to follow up to make sure that the problem gets resolved. It’s not the responsibility of employees to hold their coworkers accountable for performance if the manager fails to do so. 

I would advise managers not to create a policy or procedure unless you intend to uphold it for everybody. If there’s an established procedure, why allow some to not follow it? If there are multiple acceptable ways to do a task, why set up a procedure in the first place? The problem isn’t created by the one who points out others aren’t following the procedure. It’s the manager who sets the stage by setting up a procedure and then failing to uphold it.

Sometimes owners hire a store manager who is expected to meet performance goals. But if the store manager tries to take corrective action with poorly performing staff, is the owner prepared to let the manager do it? It won’t work to hire someone to be the disciplinarian and then overrule them. The owner can’t own the mercy pillar and assign the store manager the severity pillar. For justice to stand, everyone in management must own both pillars.

It’s important to harmonize interpretation and enforcement of policy among all managers. One store I’ve worked with developed a management team code of conduct, which included this provision:

 “I will address poor staff behaviour in my department in a timely manner and will not allow it to continue. I will enforce all guidelines found within the personnel policy manual as well as any other formal directives from the general manager.”

All managers signed the code of conduct at the time of hire or promotion, indicating their awareness and commitment to uphold both pillars of justice.

Yes, there will be times when exceptions should be made or mistakes or failures forgiven. You still need to use your judgment. Just take care that this is not a frequent occurrence or an excuse to avoid doing your job as a manager. It is possible to balance accountability with compassion.

 

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