Law of the Hog: How Employees React When Expectation Gaps Aren’t Addressed

There are two main ways people mishandle crucial moments of accountability. Most go silent — rather than address the problem, they ignore it, avoid it, and withdraw.

Others go violent.

They attack the other person. They’re disrespectful — they bully, threaten, and intimidate. We’ve found there’s a big price to pay when people handle moments of accountability in this way.

Probably the single most important principle we ever learned about leadership is called the Law of the Hog, we discovered it when doing research with a large wood product company in the American northwest.

They gave us access to their entire operation, letting us interview or observe whoever we wanted and wander around as we pleased.

So, we took advantage of this freedom.

The day the Law of the Hog was discovered, two of my associates, Kerry Patterson and David Maxfield, drove to one of the lumber mills to interview the supervisor.

When they walked in and looked around, they noticed the room was full of giant, burly men with scowls on their faces — you know, the stereotypical, tough lumberjack-type. It was a little intimidating, to say the least.

They made their way through the workers to the supervisor’s office and said, “Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us.”

The supervisor quickly responded, “Hurry it up, I’m busy.”

They asked him, “Ok… first of all, how were you selected to be the supervisor?”

“I’m the biggest guy on the team,” he said.

Kerry and David thought about it for a second and asked, “You’re the biggest guy on the team? How does that qualify you to be the supervisor?”

“I can make people do their job,” he said.

Interesting, eh? The biggest guy on the team was selected because he could force people to do their job.

They continued on with their questions. “Do you yell at workers or something? What do you do to make them do their job?”

“Whatever’s necessary!”

Then they asked him if any supervisors had ever hit an employee. The supervisor nodded.

They asked, “What happened to that supervisor? How was he punished?”

The supervisor gave them a funny look and said, “They don’t punish the supervisor! It’s the employee’s fault for not complying!”

David and Kerry could hardly believe what they heard. When the supervisor hits someone, it’s the employee’s fault, not the supervisor’s fault. This was the culture we were dealing with.

They left the office and started interviewing employees at the lumber mill, asking one worker, “How do you like your supervisor?”

“He’s better than the last one. Unlike the last supervisor, this one doesn’t throw chunks of wood at us,” the man said.

We realized the employees didn’t have very high expectations about what constitutes a healthy employee-supervisor relationship.

The researcher then asked the critical question, “What do you do when the supervisor crosses the line and goes too far?”

The employee smiled and said, “They wouldn’t do that. We’ve got the hog…”

The hog? Allow me to explain.

Hitting Them Where It Hurts

First, you need to understand how they processed the lumber.

The workers go into the forest, cut down big trees, strip the branches, section them into logs with chainsaws, and load them onto trucks headed for the lumber mill.

At the mill, they section the logs again and secure them to these giant lathes. The logs then go through a series of blades, first to remove the bark, then to cut them into sheets of veneer.

The first sheets of veneer are glued together and sold as plywood which makes the company a lot of money.

Then, thinner and longer sheets of veneer are cut and sold to fine furniture companies. These also make the company a lot of money.

Then they process the rest of the wood for beams, studs, and boards — also earning the company a lot of money.

After those products are finished, they’re left with wood scraps. This is where things get interesting.

The chunks of wood scraps are loaded on huge conveyor belts, and on either side, there’s an employee in a big leather harness that’s chained to the wall so they don’t lean in too far. They pick up the pieces of wood as they come down the belt and throw them into “the hog” — an enormous, open-mouth machine full of blades that cut and grind chunks of wood into sawdust.

Finally, the sawdust is sold to pulp mills for next to nothing. There’s very little (if any) profit to be made from the sawdust.

So, back to our question to the employee: “What do you do when the supervisor crosses the line and goes too far?”

“They wouldn’t do that. We’ve got the hog. If the supervisor treats us unfairly, we’ll throw good wood into the hog. At the end of each shift, they measure the amount of processed wood we produced and then weigh the sawdust. If the processed wood decreases and sawdust increases, the supervisor gets into trouble, and if he can’t correct it within five days, the supervisor gets fired.”

Over the next week, we watched disgruntled employees go to perfectly good stacks of veneer, roll up several sheets, and throw them into the hog.

Thus, the Law of the Hog was born, and we found this principle happening in more than lumber companies.

We saw high tech companies where expensive computer chips worth over $300 apiece were being flushed down the toilet.

We also noticed the most common form of the Law of the Hog is not blatant sabotage.

It can be excessive absenteeism and tardiness, decreases in discretionary effort, and not putting in a full day’s work. It’s doing the bare minimum to keep from being fired and not a thing more.

This causes severe damages in both results and relationships.

It undermines what we care about most as leaders and members of a family.

Here’s my advice: When a significant gap occurs between what you expected and what’s delivered, you must have the crucial confrontation.

If a significant gap exists above the line and people are outperforming expectations, then never let that gap pass without acknowledging it and thanking the person.

Bill, I heard on Friday that you got your work done and then chipped in to help Fred and Sally finish their work. The whole team finished up without any overtime. That’s fantastic! Thank you! It helps me, the team, and the entire company. Well done.

Similarly, never let a significant gap below the line pass without confronting it with a crucial conversation. Don’t go silent, and don’t go violent.

Be respectful, thoughtful, and conscious. Work on solving the problem and improving relationships. This will lead to significant breakthroughs in performance at a team level, relationship level, and a leadership level.

Latest Blog Posts

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.