When David Maxfield and I pulled up to the plywood mill, we were surprised to see an ambulance parked out front. We had come to study the impact of an upcoming leadership training program, but I must admit it was difficult to think about research as we walked by a vehicle that had “Sisters of Mercy Hospital” painted on both sides in large, red letters.
Our guess was that an employee had suffered an accident. After all, the place sported gigantic saw blades, menacing debarkers, and a terrifying machine known as “the hog.” Which, by the way, you’re not allowed to go near, unless you’re wearing a safety belt that keeps you from falling into a hole in the floor that leads to an assortment of razor-sharp, spinning blades.
It turns out, there had been no accident. According to Tony, the HR manager who was now taking us on a tour of the facility, a supervisor on the graveyard shift had confronted Max, an hourly employee who wasn’t following correct procedures. Max disagreed. One thing led to another until Max pushed Tony, who pushed back, and then Max fell and cut a large gash in his forehead.
“But we’re trying to turn that around,” explained the HR manager. “That’s why we’re implementing a leadership training program. We want you to help us determine if the instruction we’ll be providing actually works.”
As Max was loaded into the ambulance, David and I walked to the main conference room just down the hall. There, scattered around a table, sat eight randomly selected employees who had been scheduled to talk with us about what it was like working in a plywood mill. This was to be the first of two dozen such group interviews.
As I cleared my throat to start the conversation, as if on cue, the ambulance driver sounded the siren. Everyone turned to the window to watch the emergency vehicle haul their coworker away. Then, in unison, the eight employees turned their heads back toward David and me and shot us a look that said, “What do you think of the place so far?”
By now I was aching to know what these employees thought about the shoving match that had just occurred. So I asked, “What happens around this place if you dislike how you’ve been treated by one of your leaders?” After a brief pause, a fellow looked me in the eye, smiled contemptuously, and uttered two words that to this day reverberate in my mind. “The hog!”
As the blood drained from my face I managed to ask, “You mean that machine with the nasty blades that you use to cut up scrap veneer?”
“Exactly!” he replied. By now I was envisioning a team of angry employees wrestling their foreman to the ground and stuffing him into that frightening hole in the floor. “So, precisely what do you mean when you say ‘the hog’?” I continued as I prayed for an answer that didn’t involve death and dismemberment.
“When our boss leaves our work area, we take perfectly good veneer and throw it into the hog,” one of the interviewees answered politely. “That’s right,” another employee chimed in. “The hog is used for chopping up scrap. When someone grinds up good veneer, it hurts the foreman’s numbers. That gets the foreman in trouble with the plant manager.”
“Absolutely. If you want to get even with a supervisor who just insulted you or tried to jerk you around,” explained still another interviewee, “you feed the hog.”
It was from this incident that David and I created the expression “The Law of the Hog.” It means that if you talk with someone who has disappointed you or behaved poorly, but you do so in a way that is less than professional, others may find a way to get even—i.e., “feed the hog.”
Over the years, we’ve learned that every organization has its own version of feeding the hog. In one freight-shipping company, employees who become upset at being mistreated have been known to throw perfectly good parts into the deep blue sea. At a computer chip manufacturer, disgruntled associates flush gold chips down the toilet. At a software company, angry code writers purposely write errors into the program. These acts of sabotage are a means of seeking revenge on the leaders.
Of course, not everyone who believes he or she has been treated poorly seeks such direct and active revenge. The most common method of feeding the hog takes the form of lost focus, energy, and engagement. After being harshly treated by a leader, employees spend time talking about what just happened rather than doing their job. Next, they refuse to put in extra effort. Eventually they disengage.
But there’s more to the hog story. Years later I asked David (who had talked extensively with Tony, the abusive supervisor) how Tony felt about the incident.
“Actually,” replied David, “he was devastated. He had worked at the mill for years. When he was finally promoted to foreman, he discovered that it was difficult to get people to listen to him. He desperately wanted employees to follow procedures and meet deadlines, but they often ignored him. With time,” David continued, “he learned to rely on intimidation but he hated doing so. It was a small town. Some of Tony’s direct reports were neighbors, others relatives, and now they all saw him as the enemy. Tony’s own wife refused to go to church with him or otherwise be seen with him in public.”
So this wasn’t merely a story of aggression followed by revenge. Tony wasn’t the bad guy and the employees weren’t innocent bystanders exacting justice. It was a more complex tale about creating a culture of accountability. Fortunately, the leadership training we were hired to study actually did teach foremen how to hold others accountable. By learning best practices, Tony and the other leaders discovered what many skilled leaders had known for years. When you carefully study how to hold others accountable, and then actually use the skills you’ve learned, you don’t have to rely on intimidation, threats, and abuse. You can deal with deviations and disappointments without feeding the hog.
And, unless you’re the hog, that’s a good thing.
You can also go to our YouTube channel to see a video version of The Law of the Hog.