Still Suffering from Group Punishment

I thought - and somehow hoped - that after school we would never have had the pleasure of being victims  of group punishment again, but I was wrong.

Group punishment was very common in my school and in my neighborhood: when one of us did something which, according to some of our teachers, was unacceptable, they punished all of us instead of only the guy who was actually guilty. Unfortunately, history repeats itself and this time, instead of the school we are at the workplace and the teacher’s role is played by certain managers. However,** I think it is possible to prevent this from happening.** In order to do that, we have to understand how it starts and the motivation behind it.

So, group punishment is the result of a series of certain actions. It starts with an action by a group member that is not acceptable by the current norms of the leader of the group. If the leader doesn’t notice this action, then the group is safe for the moment. However, when he does notice it, he has two options: either spend the time to find the culprit and call him to account for his action, or don’t bother will all this, because it is easier to punish the whole group. Let’s summarize the key moments:

  • The leader’s norm differs from the team’s norm

  • The leader doesn’t want to or cannot spend time on finding out who is at fault

  • The leader doesn’t want to or cannot confront an individual

If you have a look at the list above, you can see that it is not hard to avoid group punishment:

  • Be transparent and align the group norms

  • Don’t jump immediately to conclusions. Step back, think, investigate. Take your time.

  • Learn how to confront a person and make him or her accountable for his or her actions

I have two real life stories for you. The first one is about an old friend of mine. He told me a story which can happen to anybody who is working at an enterprise company. In a nutshell: he is not allowed to travel anymore. And here is the sequence of events that led up to this. He didn’t have any connections to customers and he was not a sales person, but occasionally he had to talk to his colleagues overseas. In the past, he used to just travel there: he booked cheap flights, used airport transports and chose less expensive hotels. Unfortunately, he was alone with this approach. As it turned out, his company spent a huge part of its profit on travel expenses and the company chose the easy way to cut back on this expense: nobody was allowed to travel anymore. This was a classical group punishment solution, but didn’t end here: the method has changed: there were certain persons at his company who somehow earned the privilege to continue traveling. And as usual, these persons where the ones who caused the problem in the first place. Here is a typical example. A college of his made a local trip, 200 km. He chose to fly. The ticket cost about 110 euros, he took a taxi from and to the airport, this was about 2 * 40 euros. And the whole travel took him 4 hours. My friend found a bus connection - with wifi - between the source and destination, which cost about 10 euros and took about one and half hours. I could understand why he was angry, and since management never confronted the careless colleagues, they kept doing their wasteful activities.

The whole situation could have been solved if the management had read the Implementing Beyond Budgeting book by Bjarte Bogsnes and had been transparent. According to the book, the employees will keep doing their careless activities until the results are visible to everybody. In other words: organizations have to be transparent. Imagine what would have happened if those nasty travel cost details had come to light? Anyway, let’s see the second preventive action. Would it be hard for the management team to check the details of the travel costs? Most certainly yes, but it wouldn’t take much time to check out some extreme cases. Last but not least, it shouldn’t be that hard to confront somebody about his travel expenses. I remember the time when administration gave me a hard time because I wanted to order a book which cost more than 30 euros. They managed to do it, maybe I was an easy target for them. It seems that it is hard for certain managers to confront employees.

My second story is a bit shorter and has a personal connection. A couple of years ago, I was working on a project whose code quality wasn’t that good. It turned out that certain people had no desire to write any test cases, although their code was really-really bad. So, my team leader colleagues and I sat together and came up with the ultimate solution. We introduced a rule in our continuous integration system: when the test coverage dropped, the build failed. It worked for a while, but after a couple of weeks, good developers came by and complained. It turned out that they had to do more work, because those who hadn’t cared before still didn’t care, and all testing work was done by those who actually did care. In retrospect, we should have spent our time on focusing those who could not write code instead of punishing the whole organization.

It seems that the group punishment technique is still popular and it has even changed. At least in school there were no exceptions, everybody was punished equally. However, at the workplace, the rest is suffering while the real troublemakers can do whatever they feel doing. If you are a team leader or a manager, please take the time and punish only those who deserve it.

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