Be Slow to Punish but Swift to Reward

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

Years ago, in our Reliability Excellence for Managers course, we often used a video starring Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) called Sid’s Story. In the video, Sid was the production supervisor of a dysfunctional machining operation and exhibited the stereotypical traits of an “I talk, you listen” leadership style. As the video progresses, Sid adapts to the coaching provided by a consultant but then makes a leap that no one expects. His epiphany is simple but profound. When asked to define it, he says “It’s easy to see all of the things people do wrong, but you have to look for those they do right.”

While I do not totally agree—it is not hard to see the multitude of things that employees do right— our tendency is to look for the negatives rather than the positives. I do not fully understand why or how we have evolved to this trait, but when our focus is on the negatives rather than the positives it creates the morale and employee involvement problems that can, and often do, severely limit performance. You have all seen, if not participated in, interactions where employees are reprimanded for some infraction—too often with high emotion or simply to satisfy the corporate need to fix blame. Even when the reprimand is justified, punishment can have negative, long-term impact on employee involvement and morale across the company.

One rule that I have learned the hard way is to be slow to reprimand or punish an employee at any level. First, I have learned to take emotion out of the equation, before attempting to evaluate the situation fairly, logically determine a path forward and take appropriate actions. Being human, I am not always successful, but an impassive approach yields better results and minimizes the potential for collateral damage.

Coaching is also a much better approach than punishment. Most employees, even the most chronic offender, will respond positively to positive coaching. It may take time, but eventually they will respond. Effective coaching begins with our attitude. If we approach employee performance with a positive attitude that looks for what they do right, our interactions and coaching will also be positive and generate the desired results. The problem is time. Are we, as managers and leaders, willing to dedicate enough time to be effective coaches and mentors?

Praise, in lieu of blame, is a much more powerful means of creating real employee involvement. It is truly surprising how powerful a simple handshake and thank you for a job well done can be. A few months ago, I made an off-hand comment about how proud I was of what the operators and maintenance technicians in one section of a manufacturing facility had accomplished. They had reengineered their work processes into value-added, standard work and the resultant improvements raised the bar for the rest of the factory. The local union president, who overheard the comment, immediately questioned me about the comment. This simple comment, honestly given, spread across the factory and energized the entire workforce to higher levels of involvement.

Rewarding others for their performance does not need to be expensive. The myth that money, in the form of bonuses or salary, is the only reward that motivates the workforce is just that, a myth. In the Sid’s video, pumpkin bread was the reward for improved performance. Sid’s team of chronic malcontents responded to personal gifts, bread baked by Sid’s wife, pizza, Fresca, etc. from Sid and his wife. Seeing the results that he was able to achieve, the company decided to offer a free lunch to any area that achieved its production goals. The free lunches bombed; production rates declined. What made the difference? Sid’s rewards were genuine expressions of his appreciation for their efforts; the free lunch was not. Simple rewards, genuinely given, will yield desired results. No matter how expensive, rewards that are not genuine can actually have negative results. 

One of the first business management rules I learned was to pass on any praise to the team—to those who really did the work—and to absorb any blame that might result from poor performance. This rule contains important lessons. An effective manager or leader will create a stable work environment for the team, never take personal credit for what the team accomplishes and, to the extent possible, protect the team from blame. Throughout my career, I have tried to adhere to this simple rule. With few exceptions, it has proven to be a fundamental part of my success. Teams, whether a small group of hourly workers or a large group of professional consultants, have been the true source of my success. It would be unforgiveable to take credit for their effort. Conversely, when things did not go well, the failure was mine. Without exception, these failures resulted from my failure as the team leader to create an environment that fostered success. Sometimes, the source of the problem was an employee or employees that failed to perform as expected. But the real failure was mine—for not helping them resolve the reasons for poor performance.

Placing blame is never constructive nor does it solve problems. Too often, the result is growing conflicts and dissatisfaction that spread well beyond the boundaries of the initial problem. My best advice is to look for solutions that do not include blame or singling out an individual or individuals as the problem. Always remember, be slow to punish and swift to reward.

“Be Slow to Punish but Swift to Reward."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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