Pondering ultimatums

I had cause recently to think seriously about the nature and use of ultimatums in leadership situations. I’ve come to the conclusion that the ultimatum is a tool that costs the leader much more than he gains, if he gains anything at all. It’s no surprise that I’ve never seen an effective leader use an ultimatum to resolve a conflict.

Before I go on, let me make sure we’re all on the same page. In leadership situations the ultimatum takes the form, “If you don’t do what I say, I will institute this [usually very unpleasant] punishment.”

It’s a tool from the carrot and stick school of leadership. When it works, that is, when delivering the ultimatum elicits the desired behavior, it does so because the subordinate desires the carrot, which the leader has control of, or fears the stick, which the leader also has control of. The leader can threaten to take away the carrot or threaten to apply the stick.

The leader delivering an ultimatum absolutely depends on the subordinate desiring the carrot and fearing the stick. The leader has, in his mind, a “can’t lose” situation: he’ll either get obedience, or the subordinate will suffer dire consequences. He knows that the subordinate won’t choose “or else,” because that’s unthinkable. This can elicit the desired behavior in formal hierarchies like the military, because the ramifications of the subordinate’s other choice are indeed dire: court martial or, in a combat situation, execution. It becomes much less effective as the superior/subordinate relationship weakens. For example, in a volunteer organization the leader’s “stick” is almost non-existent. He’s left with the carrot: the subordinate’s permission to participate.

Things go sideways for the leader when the subordinate no longer desires the carrot nor fears the stick. At that point the leader is powerless, but he doesn’t know it. He thinks he’s delivering the knockout blow, “You better do this, or else,” and is not at all prepared for the subordinate to select “or else.” At that point it’s the leader, not the subordinate, who has no choice. He has committed to a course of action and then surrendered control of the situation to the subordinate. The subordinate, who has already determined that the leader has nothing he wants and has no power to harm him, can then tell the leader, with impunity, to go stuff himself. The leader, even if he’s aware enough to realize that he has lost the battle, has no choice but to bring out the stick and attempt to flog the subordinate, despite the fact that his attempt at flogging makes him look like a fool.

If the leader is foolish enough to allow a subordinate to goad him into a public confrontation, then everybody gets to witness just how weak and ineffective the leader is. Not only does everybody see him fail to control the situation, they see him deploy his ultimate weapon and have it blow up in his face. The subordinate disobeyed, dared the leader to do something about it, and then laughed at the result when the leader took the bait. The leader exercised his authority, but lost the subordinate and the respect of anybody watching the conflict.

The ultimatum is a tool employed by weak and insecure leaders when leadership has failed. Even if it elicits the desired behavior, it does so only out of fear. It forever damages the relationship between the leader and the subordinate, and it will cause anybody who witnesses the confrontation to look at the leader in a new and much less positive light.

An effective leader, on the other hand, establishes control of a developing conflict and works to resolve the situation peacefully and privately. If he determines that there is no hope for an amicable resolution, he removes the carrot or applies the stick without preamble. The leader can do this because the subordinate already knows that he’s crossed the line. There’s no need for the leader to say, in effect, “You have one last chance.” Sure, the subordinate might not care and the leader’s assertion of authority might be meaningless. But he did it privately, on his own terms rather than in response to a final gesture of defiance by the subordinate: a defiance that the leader foolishly made possible and all too often encouraged by his behavior.

The ultimate result is the same, but the difference in perception is tremendous. In the case of the ultimatum, the leader is in effect saying “I will beat you into submission.” And when the confrontation ends with the subordinate still defiant, the leader is shown to be weak and ineffective. But the effective leader calmly saying, “You’ve left me no choice. I must institute the punishment,” the leader is seen as having done everything possible to resolve the situation, but regretfully had to drop the hammer. Even if the confrontation is public, if the leader remains calm and controls the situation he is seen as effective and the subordinate is seen as out of line. And the subordinate’s unconcern never comes into play because he’s never given the opportunity to make that last gesture of defiance.