Replace the Reprimand With This Question

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Our culture is the worst. It is based on fear. Everyone walks around here on eggshells, tip-toeing around the CEO. We try our best, but there is always something wrong. We can take the truth about the screw-up, but the load that comes with it makes the person feel small and worthless. Even if I am not the target, I stand by and watch a co-worker on the receiving end of a scathing reprimand. It just makes me feel bad.

All crumbs lead to the top. Always. You have an accountability problem that shows up as a culture problem.

Many managers tell me they have to hold their people accountable. If an output goal is missed, the manager feels the need to bring it to the team members attention through a reprimand, warning or a scolding write-up in the employee file. (Oh no!) If the manager can muster an emotional, red-faced dressing-down, all the better. The manager must have truly held the team member accountable.

Understand, in all this froth, nothing changed. The output didn’t change. The behaviors that created the output didn’t change. Oh, wait. Something did change. The manager feels powerful and effective. But the only effect is that the team member feels bad.

People don’t perform better when they feel bad. Their breathing becomes shallow. Fear drives them into four unproductive responses –

  • Fight (the boss is an asshole)
  • Flight (I will hide, I will hide my work, my contribution will no longer be detectable)
  • Freeze (Paralysis that freezes all decision making, including appropriate decision making)
  • Appease (Sycophant behavior that never questions anything, the perfect “yes man”)

Accountability for output is misplaced. If an output goal is missed, it is not the team member I hold accountable. It is the manager. I hold the team member accountable for this one thing. I hold the team member accountable to come to work each and every day, with their full discretionary attention to do their best. That’s it.

It is the manager I hold accountable for their output. It is the manager who controls all the resources. It is the manager who selected the team member for the task. It is the manager who trained the team member in the necessary skills. It is the manager who provided the tools and equipment necessary for the task. It is the manager who controlled the working environment, the start time, the end time, the quality of raw materials. It is the manager I hold accountable for the output of the team member.

And, most often, it is the CEO I hold accountable, for the CEO is accountable for the output of the entire organization.

A reprimand is counter-productive to output. Output is made up of a number of variables –

  • Who?
  • Skill-level?
  • Tools?
  • Equipment?
  • Working environment?
  • Target completion time?
  • Quality of raw materials?

Replace the reprimand with this question. What could we do differently to get the output we want? This is the only question that impacts output.

And, now, I am talking directly to the CEO. Your people can take the truth, not the load. Replace the reprimand with a question.

8 thoughts on “Replace the Reprimand With This Question

  1. Rick Eigenbrod

    This changes nothing. It just moves the dynamics up to between manager and superior. It’s a fractel of the same pattern grounded in a paternalistic paradigm. It gives people below the manager a pass. Hey I’m not accountable, the team as an entity isn’t accountable…the manager is. In a company of grown up we hold ourselves accountable. As my friend Pat Murray says, the company with the most grown ups wins.
    Thanks for prompting this conversation on responsibility, accountability, and authority. Our companies and families will be a lot better off when we get this sorted out.
    Right on with reprimand. At work and home.

  2. Jack Altschuler

    Excellent essay, Tom.

    Delivering a “load” is not about accountability. It’s about abuse, not improvement. It’s about anger, not leadership. It’s about being a bully and taking unfair advantage. It’s just an ugly “gotcha” game.

    If the job of leadership is to produce the desired results, then a certain way to avoid those desired results and instead drive sub-optimal resulted is to disspirit workers, and that is exactly what happens when the boss beats them up.

    The CEO would do well to shift to an attitude of curiosity, heed your advice, ask your question and mentor his/her direct reports to do the same.

  3. Barry Linetsky

    I am unclear how a CEO can run a company without an alignment of accountabilities. “We hold ourselves accountable.” Where does this accountability come from? Accountable to whom?

  4. Linda Duffy

    Another question I encourage managers to ask themselves is: What am I doing to support this employee’s success? It’s easy to reprimand the employee and leave all the blame at her/his feet. If managers ask what their role is, it balances out that conversation instead of it being so paternalistic.

  5. Bernard Paul-Hus

    In our experience in growing through these issues, the paradigm and cultural shift required to truly have meaningful and positive accountability comes from a purposeful shift from accountability driven by strict authoritarian edicts to a culture of self accountability. So it takes the right kind of people, in the right roles, driven by a common vision that has specific goals that are routinely measured and are regularly shared (transparency) for all to achieve. If goals throughout all stratums are being achieved, or are failing to be achieved, accountability is obvious. The right person in the right role reacts to the data accordingly. That’s positive accountability.

    Otherwise, in “old school ” authoritarian accountability systems, there are only the negative levers of a disciplinary system or termination.

    Get the right people in the right roles, establish meaningful KRAs and report against them constantly. Success and failure and where it all lies becomes evident to all throughout all strata of the organization.

    My three cents worth (inflation…).

  6. Linda Murphy

    The emphasis on the last comment was on Output…which is typically an end measure. Where is the emphasis on Input. The Input of each member of the team(the level of tasks and work) directly correlates to the Output measurement. What about having each be accountable to not only measure their daily input of work but also use those metrics to improve upon their own performance? That will impact everyone’s Output.


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