Never underestimate the power of a schnook. - Boris BadenovI have, in my day, gone through lots of leadership training.
I've learned how to recognise excellent personal and team performance with a variety of financial and nonfinancial incentives; how to deal with difficult situations, like personal crises, policy violations, substandard performance, and terminations; how to facilitate meetings; delegate tasks; and coach employees who make mistakes without demoralising them.
I have to be fair. I've also received training in providing small rewards and incentives as morale-builders, such as T-shirts, pizza, or tickets to movies. The small stuff is important in creating an atmosphere where good work and a good attitude are appreciated.
But in all my training, I never once heard anyone talk about the single most common situation most managers have to deal with: minor infractions.
I'm heartily sick of the phrase, ". . . potentially leading to termination". Regular readers will recall an employee who received a one-week suspension without pay for sending a joke over his company's e-mail. As Mum used to say, they made a federal case out of it.
Have you established techniques for dealing with minor infractions? Small stuff like lateness for meetings, dead-horse-beating in discussions, or slightly too long lunch breaks? It's important to do so. If you let minor matters go unchallenged, they grow into significant problems. On the other hand, if every time you see some trivial problem you call the offender into your office for a solemn conversation, you establish an image . . . as a pompous twit.
So if you can neither ignore the problem nor counsel the offender, what can you do?
I learned the answer the hard way. After a reorganisation, I walked into the weekly staff meeting of one of my new teams five minutes late. Another attendee, who had apparently arrived four minutes late, breathed a sigh of relief and said cheerily: "You bring the donuts next week!"
A front-line supervisor in a company with whom I've consulted has a similar strategy: when someone breaks the rules he holds a "kangaroo court" and when the accused is found guilty they impose the cookie penalty. You guessed it - the guilty party has to provide cookies for everyone.
Donuts or cookies, it was minor, good-natured, expected, and public. Because the penalty directly benefited the team it boosted morale in the bargain. And these are the keys.
Keeping your penalties small emphasises your own sense of perspective. Mum would have approved - no federal case.
Keeping the atmosphere good-natured reinforces the desirabi-lity of an open, casual environment.
Unlike rewards, where inventiveness is the key, minor penalties should establish a team tradition. Traditions are important in building teams, just as with any other community.
It's important to publicly razz the trouble-maker in this kind of situation.
You get to make the point to everyone that the behaviour isn't appropriate. You reinforce an environment where nobody has to measure every word they speak.
It's important for the penalty to benefit other team members, which is why desserts are such a great punishment, as is making the guilty party take notes at the next meeting.
A sweet solution
Because the offender does something good for teammates, the sentence builds up the team (whereas each minor infraction incrementally damages team cohesiveness).
And although some companies (for example, those whose IT departments gripe about screen-savers) don't seem to value this very much, you get to make the workplace just a wee bit more fun.
Maybe you're the kind of sourpuss who doesn't see the value of all this. If so, I have the perfect solution.
You get to bring the next plate of cookies.