Whooping all the Children

Unilateral punishment rarely is effective.  In fact, I can’t think of a situation where it has ever been effective.  I can remember threats from insecure teachers in elementary school, ”If no one owns up to the spit wad that just came sailing across the room, then everyone will stay after class, until someone comes forward.”  It’s pretty difficult to back out of that threat.  And if no one owns up or at least falls on the sword for the rest of the kids?  Do the kids really think they’ll be stuck there until night fall? Perhaps someone will rat the culprit out; perhaps not.  What are the kids learning from this situation?  Punishment isn’t fair?  Guilt by association?  I need to be in a different class, preferably without spit wads? whooping all the children

Similar situations happen in the workplace all the time.  One person has an odor problem?  Let’s institute a policy about daily bathing.  One employee misused the company credit card? No more company credit cards.  One manager is way over budget? The “whooping” meeting.  Invariably, the culprit walks out of the meeting oblivious to their transgressions and assumes “they must be talking about someone else”.  The rest of the team slides into paranoia and figures “it must be me”.  Unilateral punishment isn’t effective.  Whooping all the children isn’t going to stop the hijinks.

Here are some tips on dealing with performance issues:

1. Exhale. As in, take a breath.  I’ve seen meetings hurriedly thrown together while the boss is in a good lather.  Not a good idea. Anger rarely results in proactive outcomes.  You never know what you might say and whose feelings you will hurt (perhaps even innocent bystanders). Take some time and reflect on the situation. If you can feel your temples bulging and your heart racing, take a break…even a walk, and exhale.

2. Diagnose. What is really going on here? It’s time for some root cause analysis. Do we have a policy problem? Is everyone over budget or just two departments?  If this is a systemic problem, it might be time to craft a new policy.  If it’s just an offender or two, it’s time for a few one-on-one chats.  Get to the bottom of the cause.  If everyone stinks then Personal Hygiene Policy. If it’s just Joe that stinks, time for a Hygiene discussion with Joe. Diagnose the problem.

3. Blanket check. So if you decide that the issue needs a policy, make sure you have the right group covered by the blanket.  Sending out the updated Company Travel Policy to the rank and file may cause confusion, (jealousy), and, eventually, over saturation of meaningless emails which are ignored.  If there is a new software update for customer service folks, send out the update to the customer service folks who use the software. Sounds obvious, but isn’t your inbox full of information you don’t need? Make sure you’ve got the right blanket.

4. Test assumptions. So if you decide that it’s just Joe that stinks, check out your assumptions.  Take a walk by Joe’s cube first thing in the morning.  After lunch. After the budget meeting. Take a whiff. Is it a bathing problem or a deodorant problem or a cologne problem?  You aren’t going to know unless you collect some observations. It might be that onion sandwich at lunch.  Test your assumptions.

5. Message. Craft the message. Whether a policy or individual conversation. Decide what needs to said. Maintain self esteem.  This is not the time to get out the hammer.  Focus on facts and not emotions.  Distill what you want to say down to two or three impactful sentences.  If it’s a new policy, brevity and preciseness is key. Pass it by a second set of eyes or ears (someone without a dog in the fight) and then edit. This is not the time for a diatribe where the true message might get lost.

6. Deliver.  Time to take the plunge and deliver the message.  If it’s a policy, make sure to check step 3.  Disseminate to those it clearly applies to.  If you are constantly sending out messages that don’t relate to the person, you will eventually be ignored.  If it’s a conversation with Stinky Joe?  Make sure it’s private and check your timing.  Monday morning? Bad idea.  Month end?  Bad idea.  Wednesday afternoon after the company BBQ?  Sounds good.  Deliver the message with respect and empathy.

Most of the time when I’ve been present for a “Whooping all the Children” session, we’ve let things get down the road too far.  We’ve avoided the conflict and waited until we are so uncomfortable that we need to lash out.  Or we lash out at the wrong audience (i.e. we yell at the dog or lose our cool with our spouse).  Try these steps to spare those relationships that are most important to you.  Don’t whoop all the children.

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