Lately I’ve received a lot of feedback related to a previous post about how to conduct difficult conversations. Some of that feedback includes complaints about leaders avoiding difficult conversations by issuing “group reprimands.” As you’ll see below, some smart managers are rethinking such punish-the-whole-group tactics.

Dear Dr. Graham:

I hope you can help me with my dilemma. My boss wants me to address some problems in my 25-person team. We have two or three employees who consistently come in late. One often dresses inappropriately. Another one spends too much time looking at social media. When I told my boss I wasn’t sure how to handle these issues, she suggested I conduct a team meeting, reiterating our policies and explaining that if everyone can’t comply, we will install a time clock and take other enforcement measures.

Is this really the best way to handle this problem? 

Cautious Manager

Dear Cautious,

You are right to reconsider your boss’ suggestion. Like me, you may remember feeling angry in grade school when teachers punished the entire class for something one or two had done. When leaders punish the whole team or organization for the behavior of a few, they run the risk of:

  • Diluting the message. The very people who need to hear your message are the ones most unlikely to change their behavior when it’s broadcast to the whole group. Some are unaware they are the offenders; they will think you’re speaking to others. Others may be very aware of breaking the rules but feel safely anonymous within the group.
  • Demoralizing the team. Reprimanding the team as a whole may make the rule followers (the ones who actually don’t need to hear your message!) on your team anxious. They may wonder if there has been a time they have missed the mark. For example, if the conversation addresses hygiene concerns (“body odor” is a particularly difficult subject), offenders will remain ignorant while your top performers worry unnecessarily.
  • Damaging their reputation. When leaders fail to address individual offenses, that failure hurts their ability to lead going forward. Group punishment tends to reduce the leader’s power in the eyes of the group, because the real problem remains unaddressed. Since you haven’t acted with authority, your best workers may become resentful while the offenders assume they can remain unaccountable.

The best way to handle this problem is to meet with each person individually, using my post on difficult conversations as a guide. Such conversations maximize the potential of positive change in individuals and minimize the collateral damage of punishing the whole group because of the behavior of the few.

Want to keep the conversation going? Join my Facebook group (Lead at a Higher Level) to interact with me directly, You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.

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