Without Consequences Managers Send the Wrong Message

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Aug 24, 2016

Ryan Lochte certainly did realize severe consequences to his childish actions in Rio. They hit him where it really hurts – in the pocketbook.

One hopes that Lochte learns from this experience, grows up and becomes a responsible adult.  Maybe.

If, however, what happened to Lochte serves to influence other young athletes to be wise about their fame, that is a good outcome.

Do we learn from consequences?

As painful as some lessons of consequence are, they are (or should always be) learning experiences. They may hit you upside the head and make you say, “Whoa, I’ve got to do something different.” Or, they may subtly influence behavior the next time you contemplate an action. That’s not bad.

In many cases, we have lost the concept of consequences. I won’t even bother with the loss of consequences in our world and in our nation. Let’s keep this exploration at the organizational level, and the concept of the messages that are given to the workforce when there are no consequences for inappropriate action.

How it works at work

Imagine, if you will, a team of five people, all focused on providing excellent customer service. One of the five, let’s call him Ben, is not pulling his weight, and his team members are covering for him. You, as his manager, are aware that he is close to retirement, with the event planned for 18 months out. So you cut him some slack and he “retires” on the job.

The rest of the team sort of “gets it,” recognizing that Ben is probably not going to change his ways. And then your team lands a huge new contract, with no additional staff to accomplish the work. Tempers get testy as everyone but Ben take on the burden of learning the new customer, and finding ways to streamline the processing so that everything can be accomplished.

The laissez-faire attitude toward Ben become one of cynicism, particularly for anyone who is actually held to the higher standard. Over the course of 18 months, cynicism becomes dissatisfaction and disengagement, with a possible exit of the most productive team member. Performance deteriorates. And Ben is still hanging around taking up a head count.

What messages do your actions hold?

If you think employees don’t hear a very loud message from a deliberate lack of consequences for obvious behavior (or lack thereof), think again. Every move you make as a leader shouts a message to your team. You have control over what message is sent.

Sponsors slammed Lochte with very visible consequences. Whether or not he learns a lesson is one thing. But the message to other young athletes is pretty loud: “Your personal behavior is important. Behave appropriately or suffer the consequences.”

The actions of leaders speak as loudly in an organization as the removal of sponsorship, and the outcomes can be just as devastating to organizational performance. Leaders don’t have to say a word to scream a message to their teams. All they have to do is act (or not.)

What are the consequences of your actions? Who is on the receiving end?

This article originally appeared on @ the intersection of learning & performance.