Earlier this year, a potential client asked for advice on handling a difficult employee. After learning a bit about the situation, it seemed like he had tried lots to accommodate this employee, but the problems with her only worsened. He asked what he could do.
As we discussed the situation, the manager admitted that he had also made mistakes and was ready to take action on giving feedback and managing more effectively. I made a recommendation on how I might coach him, assuming he wanted help. We agreed to reconnect after he decided what to do.
I later discovered that his solution to the problem was to enforce new regulations for his entire team – more accountability, less flexibility on projects, and additional restrictions on how people could work. Apparently, he concluded that punishing the entire team would get the message across to the non-performer.
I’ve seen managers try this and almost universally get awful results. Here are three reasons managers should avoid team punishments when trying to correct someone’s performance:
1) It hurts your top performers more. Top performers are generally the ones who’ve been granted the most flexibility to do their work in the way they want – and rightfully so. As a result, more restrictive rules, policies, and procedures are likely to hamper them more than non-performers. Top performers also generally have better relationships with the manager and are more likely to adhere to their wishes, even if they privately disagree. Either way, team punishments disproportionally hurt top people.
2) The person never gets the message. The most common reason a team punishment is used is because the manager doesn’t have the confidence or skill to confront the individual directly…so they hope that the person will “get the message” when it’s talked about in an open forum.
People rarely get a message this way. Sadly, more often the opposite is true. I’ve heard stories of non-performers cheerfully hopping on the bandwagon in front of a team (and stunned manager) to champion the new rule for everyone else, not realizing it was primarily aimed at them. I’ve also seen top performers suddenly concerned that they’ve been doing something wrong too. The original problem goes unresolved and the manager is left with a worse situation than they started with.
3) Whatever credibility was there is gone. By the time many managers decide that action is needed to correct a problem, most of the team has been painfully dealing with it for some time. The minute that team members realize that the manager is unwilling to confront one person and punishes everyone else instead, few will enthusiastically follow that manager into the next situation.
Effective managers address problems with non-performers individually and directly. Mangers I’ve seen struggle through this still get a lot better results (and respect) than managers who perfectly execute a team punishment. I’ll take the former any day.