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When should leaders crack the whip on their employees? The term itself is negative, drenched in images of whipping defenseless animals. The answer is simple: never. But that begs another question: how do leaders elicit the best performances from their people? How do they put the whip down - and inspire them to do better?

Cracking the Whip - Or Throwing the Binder

In her article, "Cracking the Whip," Julia Chang describes an auto sales manager who has a special trick up his sleeve to "motivate" his salespeople when performance is lacking: binders. One member of his team was pulling poor numbers, month after month. The manager spoke with him, to no avail. Finally, he threw a binder at salesman - who "actually sold a couple of cars" that day.

This manager says, "I was always tough on all my salespeople, but they knew the reason was that I wanted them to do better." He acknowledged that while he doesn't take such action all the time, but says, "If you do it once in a while, it works."

Does it?

Research strongly suggests that punishment does not "change the tendency to engage in the behavior that was punished." Rather, it makes the person want to avoid the source of the punishment. See the distinction?

If, for instance, an employee is called onto the carpet for continual tardiness, she will certainly amend her behavior. When the boss is around. Otherwise, she'll revert and roll in 10 minutes late, as usual. That salesperson from our example: he did sell cars that day. But what about the next day? The next week? The next month? Did he, too, revert back to old behavior? Likely he did.

So what's the answer?

Accentuating the Positive...

According to the Wall Street Journal, "accentuating the positive" is the new business as usual in a growing number of organizations. Michelle Russell, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group says that, during performance reviews, they used to "bring [employees] in and beat them down a bit."

The result: employees whose confidence was so badly shaken it negatively impacted their performance. Many actually left the company. Now BCG focuses on strengths and conducts regular check-ins. While they do mention areas that require development, they also work on coaching employees to use their strengths to overcome those challenges. PriceWaterhouseCoopers uses a similar technique: staff is encouraged to send e-cards of praise to peers and direct-reports, and managers have a budget to reward wins. But this doesn't mean they look the other way when people make a misstep.

Caitlyn Marcoux, a senior associate, says she is still told when she makes mistakes but the appreciation routinely shown means that it doesn't destroy her confidence. She's able to take it in stride - and make improvements.

...And Figuring Out the Negative

What if you're at the point where you have to do something about an employees' performance or behavior? Change the crack the whip mentality. Something has to be done because you're not getting the results you want, so you have to begin an introspective process of asking: Why am I not getting the performance I want? Is it that I put the wrong person in the job? That he or she is not qualified - or interested? Is there something going on at home or with his or her health?

There's a myriad of possible actions you can take, depending on the reason for subpar performance, but you have to start with why. Once you figure that out, the question becomes, if people are not performing, are you going to threaten them - or are you going to coach them through it?

Cracking the whip is an outdated term - and an even more archaic management method. If your real goal is to enhance performance, start with why and move forward from there. Coaching employees to improve yields far better results than threatening them to do so.


Larry Hart

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