Managing by Exception

Meet Fred. Fred is a senior director at Big Ideas Inc., a professional services firm specializing in social media marketing. Fred manages a creative team of 6 mid-career professionals. One of Fred’s team members, Mike is an easy going guy who regularly shows up for meetings 5 to 10 minutes late. Fred, a stickler for punctuality, is annoyed with Tom’s behavior and issues a terse email to the entire team stating that, starting with next week, meeting doors will close at the start of each meeting. Late comers will be locked out. For the 5 team members who are continuously punctual, this new procedure is annoying and insulting, especially since they know that only one member of the team caused such a draconian result.

Sound familiar? Fred is practicing exception management. He is communicating a directive to the entire staff, is essentially accusing all of them of a negative behavior even though only one person needed the correction. Not only is this a waste of time and effort, it sets a negative tone for the team as a whole. Managers who exclusively manage by exception create a climate that promotes behavior governed by rules and policy rather than by trust and respect.

Don’t manage by exception. Correct behavioral gaffs by dealing directly with the individual. Here is how Fred should have dealt with Mike:

  1. Grab Mike immediately after the meeting. Feedback needs to be given as close to the errant behavior as possible. Waiting until the next day or even next week will weaken the urgency of the message.
  2. Use as few words as possible. Get to the point. Be frank, concise, and even blunt with the message. Talking around the issue, embellishing it with superfluous points only muddies the waters. A good formula to use is: specific behavior + situation/context + impact on the team. In Mike’s case, it might sound like this: Mike, you were 10 minutes late to the client meeting this morning. We had to wait for you, making the meeting time run over. Now we are all running late for our next meeting which means I won’t get to finish the report that is due by close of business today.
  3. Stop and listen to Mike’s response to your feedback. Really listen. Ask questions. Summarize back to him what you are hearing.
  4. Jointly agree on commitments and outcomes. Ask Mike to email back a summary of the agreements and commitments.

Honest, open and timely feedback, both positive and constructive, is the bedrock of building trusting relationships. Sending mass emails hoping that the offending party sees themselves as the culprit and corrects their behavior is a grossly inefficient way to create a positive work environment. I have no quibble with policy and procedure manuals. They serve as useful tools to clearly describe acceptable behavior in the workplace. But they can never replace direct one-on-one feedback. Policies and rules are a means to an end, not the end itself. They provide behavioral direction and set boundaries, give us the roadmap to our destination. The destination itself is a work environment that allows everyone it to have meaningful work and achieve great business results.

By Alice Waagan
Workforce Learning

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