Updated: Jan 24
Punishing an employee for doing what you wanted them to do? Sounds absurd! And it is absurd—absurdly common, that is. Coast to coast, it happens daily in the workplace. What’s the cause of this phenomenon? Well, usually it is the boss’s reaction to an employee’s actions that is sending the wrong message.
A few years back, I coached an operations manager on how he communicated with his team. After an employee admitted a mistake that she had made, the operations manager said, “My thirteen-year-old daughter could have done a better job than you!” This employee stormed off and gathered her coat. When the operations manager asked where she was going, she said home. He asked who she thought would do her job.
She responded, “Why don’t you get your thirteen-year-old daughter to do it?”
Today, he would tell you that he should have done things differently with this employee. At the time, he punished an employee for acting the way that he treated her. In the employee’s mind, she was punished for doing the right thing.
To look at this from another angle, take an employee who consistently performs better than average. You, the boss, know that they will complete any and all tasks that you delegate to them due to this wonderful work ethic. Without thinking about it, you pile the work onto this employee. When they continue to rise to the occasion, you continue to “reward” them with more work. As a result, this bright employee begins to burn out. When you say that they have a future with your company, they begin to believe that you are making false claims. It is only a matter of time before this employee seeks out opportunities elsewhere. When this person resigns, you’re shocked. But where you saw a dependable employee, they saw nothing but more work and no pay off.
If this example sounds familiar to you—maybe it’s happened more than once within your business—you are guilty of punishing an employee for doing what you asked of them, even though you meant well. As a result, you have lost a high performer from your team.
Think about the way you ask for ideas in a team meeting. No doubt when an employee speaks up and offers an idea, they get more work to do than your other employees. You mean to give them more responsibilities, but instead you have just taught your team that when the boss asks for ideas, they better stay quiet. Otherwise they will get more work to do.
Think about the dynamics of your team. How do you delegate tasks among them? Do you dump menial tasks onto the most cooperative and willing people time and again? Eventually, these employees will tire of always getting the bad news jobs. They will either leave to find new employment or will become uncooperative and unwilling in the workplace, as they are looking to avoid continuously getting the worst jobs.
Think about how you recognize employees who have performed well. Is it in front of a group? After all, not everyone likes to be recognized in front of the group. You might not realize it, but you’ve created one of their worst nightmares live and in action! They may not perform as well the next time in order to avoid such a situation.
Think about how you communicate with your team about unwanted behavior. Many of us fall into the trap of the office-wide memo about not following a policy or procedure when only one or two people are guilty of breaking the rules. Your team begins to question your credibility, saying to one another, “You do a good job around here, but you still get your butt chewed out.”
As a speaker, author, and consultant, I try to remind all my audiences that problems with their employees often start at the top. When employees are not doing what they should be doing, it’s time to take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself: What are you doing? And what should you be doing?