How leaders punish the many for the sins of the few - despite the best of intentions

People who lead organizations have a tough job. We have to simultaneously accomplish the mission, support our people, get better results, fix problems, make improvements... It can be overwhelming.

So overwhelming, in fact, that we sometimes do things in our search for efficiency that turn out to be completely ineffective.

Due to unforeseen problems, our new policy will be...

Recently I was working with a client who was dealing with a challenge around resource costs. Cell phone charges had gone through the roof, and while he wanted to make sure his people had the tools to do the job, he felt he had to deal with the situation.

So he sent out an email telling everyone that there was a new cap on cell phone minute usage. The limit was completely reasonable - in fact nearly everyone was below it on a regular basis. There were just two people out of forty who were over. Way over. Three times over.

But the email sounded like everyone was over, and just the accounts payable manager and the CEO got the actual numbers, so suddenly most everyone felt mistrusted and unsupported - except the two people who were oblivious of their usage anyway!

(It could have been worse - I know of a situation where a CEO of a mid-size company decided to contain costs by having all senior field engineers turn in their company-supplied cell phones because they were costing too much. This was followed with: "Oh, and give us your personal cell number since it's a job requirement for us to be able to reach you 24/7." Seriously.)

Rationalization is a slippery slope

As a leader it feels more efficient to fix the system instead of dealing with poor individual behavior - yet this leads to punishing the many for the sins of the few. So let's break down the thinking to see where we're going wrong.

  • With the right structure, people will be encouraged to do the right things. [true]
  • If I deal with just one person, then I'll have to deal with another, and another, then I might as well meet with every single person, and I don't have time for that. [partially true]
  • It's uncomfortable confronting someone on misbehavior when it's probably just confusion about the standard. [true about discomfort and possibly about the standard]
  • If I just send out a note that clearly states the problem and tightens the standard then problem solved, right? [not true - in fact, you've likely added to your problems!]

Actions you can take today

  1. Increase your awareness. Take 5 minutes and think about the last couple of times you've set or changed a policy. How much was it enabling people to self-manage versus enabling you not to have to confront bad behavior? Bonus points if you went to the "violators" first to help them understand the standard before reinforcing it to the whole team.
  2. Strengthen feedback. Take 5 minutes to think about your current challenges and pick one out where people aren't doing the right thing. Take another 5 minutes and brainstorm ways to make the system better so people can see the impact of their actions and self-regulate. Pick one that gets a good payoff with a small amount of effort and start making that change. Bonus points if you get the people involved to do a pilot project to test the improvement.        

How can leaders make change happen when they are so busy? Check out my blog for a way that virtually guarantees you'll get going where you couldn't before.

Chris Hutchinson