Fish rot from the head down… or so it’s said



People-Smart Leadership Principles

The truth of the matter is I’ve never smelled a fish that is beginning to rot to test this cliché whose origin is unknown. However, in 1768, Sir James Porter observed another version of the phrase used by the Turks who suggested: “the stink of the fish begins at the head.” Either way, I’m assuming it is true, but I do know that rotting fish stink.

The scary part of this rot or stink is the effect it can have upon your dealership. But before addressing the effect, let’s address the rotting head impact with humans.

Understand that stinking thinking produces the stinky behaviors people don’t like. All of us will occasionally have stinking thoughts, but fortunately, most of us control such thinking before adversely affecting personal relationships. Consider this fact for a moment: When you change your thoughts your world changes.

Another critical point is that the higher the stinking fish resides in a dealership’s management structure, the more damage that can be done. Today’s COVID environment provides an excellent example. Leaders need to wear masks to model the behaviors expected from others. Heaven forbid if a dealership’s president/CEO is the stinking fish whose smell is cascading throughout the organization.

Another point of entry for the stinking fish is the working relationship between sales, service, and parts. That working relationship often flares into a fire. This fire is the product of stinking thinking. Have you ever seen a job description spell out permission to fan the fire of conflict? How about dueling managers telling their employees, “It’s okay to add fuel to the fire.” That’s not right, of course, nor should that behavior be tolerated (but that’s another story for another time).

I ask Dealer Institute course attendees for a show of hands if they have at least one stinking fish in their dealership. Most everyone will raise their hand while laughing. It gets more serious when I ask them if they’ve ever been that stinking fish. Most people are honest and raise their hands. Invariably some are slower to raise their hands because it’s a bit embarrassing to admit the truth, but the fact of the matter is all of us have been that stinking fish.

Freedom of Choice

The fate of an actual dead, rotting fish is determined – it rots away or becomes a meal for a bird or animal. Fortunately, the fate of a stinking person in a dealership is more optimistic. People can use their freedom of choice and put life back into their stinking thinking to remove the stench. As you know, this is easier said than done because change requires the following actions:

  • First, employees must become aware that they are stinking and spreading a smell throughout the dealership. Unless employees become self-aware of their stench it often goes unabated. Supervisors become reluctant to work with these employees because the dealership needs their technical expertise, or the dealership needs a body to fill that position. (People who know me know that I’m not an advocate to keep a stinking fish.) The bottom line is stinking fish need to know that behaving the same way is not an option.
  • Second, an employee needs a target other than to stop stinking. You not only want the stench to stop, but you want the employee to act in a more positive, supportive manner. For example, instead of complaining about everything, you want the employee to begin supporting the decisions to advance the department, thus the dealership.
  • Third, the stinking fish needs to intellectually and emotionally understand and accept the benefits to him/her to breathe new life into their brain to replace the stinking thinking. The truth of the matter is illustrated in the joke, “How many psychologists are needed to change the light bulb? One if the light bulb wants to change.” The key is to help the stinking fish to want to change and you do that with points two and four.
  • Fourth, the stinking fish must exert the necessary self-discipline to use the target behavior to support decisions and other employees throughout the day.
  • Fifth, feedback is a requirement to improve performance. If you don’t believe this statement, try shooting blindfolded at a target and determine if your performance improves. Ask someone to provide immediate feedback and you will be able to hit your target within a few attempts.

Let’s Get Serious

The stinking fish that may be swimming around in your dealership needs a continuous reminder to improve their interpersonal performance, i.e., the behavior will probably not change without it. So, if you are serious about helping your employees make a change, let’s put more structure to the change process.

First, supervisors can meet with respective employees at the beginning of the day to discuss having a good day in support of the dealership.

Second, there is a need for real-time feedback. Throughout the day, supervisors should recognize the smallest improvement in an employee’s behavior. Upon seeing the employee exhibit the stinking thinking behavior, the supervisor simply reminds the employee of the need to be supportive.

Third, at the end of the day, a supervisor can see the employee walking out the door and provide recognition for having a good day and express confidence that tomorrow will likewise be a good day.

Good luck. The next article in the People-Smart Leadership series will address the right time to terminate the employment of the stinking fish. Stay tuned.

Article Written By Larry Cole, Ph.D.

Larry Cole, Ph.D., is a lead trainer for and consultant to the Western Equipment Dealers Association’s Dealer Institute. He provides on-site training and public courses to improve business leadership effectiveness and internal and external customer service. Please send questions and/or comments to Larry at


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