Public reprimanding is not a valid leadership tool

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Human error and poor judgement are commonplace in business. When someone makes a mistake, it is often tempting to admonish them on the spot. Doing so can give a manager a sense of having acted immediately to rectify the situation. Delivering a public reprimand can satisfy pent-up frustration and instantly display public authority and superior status. I nevertheless strongly counsel against making any form of public rebuke and believe that shouted denunciations are unacceptable in any workplace. Let’s see why:

Leslie has made a big mistake.

You are chairing a team meeting when it becomes clear that Leslie, your purchasing manager, has failed to place an order for critical components needed for next week’s production. It is evident to all around the table that he has well and truly screwed up. Resolving the situation will be expensive. You are exasperated by his negligence.

However, one of the most fundamental mistakes leaders make is rebuking a subordinate in front of their team. So, how should you deal with this situation?

Lead firmly and rationally

First, mentally separate the desire to blame Leslie from the need to rectify the problem. Immediately initiate the appropriate steps to get things back on track. This may or may not involve Leslie, and it can be done publicly. Then tell Leslie that you wish to speak to him privately after the meeting. Go to your office or somewhere out of view and earshot of the team. Suppose you are contemplating an official warning or sanction. In that case, you may wish to have a witness, in which case ask a suitably senior colleague (or a manager from HR of equal or senior status to Leslie) to join you.

Protect your dignity – act with respect

It does not matter that Leslie’s team members know you will reprimand him. What matters is that they do not witness the reprimand. By upbraiding Leslie in front of his peers or subordinates, both you and he are likely to be diminished in their eyes. 

Do not humiliate your colleague. 

Humiliation is not a leadership tool. Those present will feel embarrassed for Leslie and may quickly consider that he is unfairly and publicly humiliated – especially if it is clear to all that he has no alternative but to humiliate himself by either admitting his incompetence or by giving weak excuses or shifting the blame.

Deny every opportunity for a flare-up

Another drawback of a public arena in such situations is that, as the boss, you have to walk a narrow line between appearing overly harsh or too soft. You will be limited in what you can say, and you may be unable to cite previous occasions or relevant personal observations. The other team members will judge every comment you make, and it is unlikely that all will agree with everything you say. You, therefore, risk team members taking sides — a lose-lose situation. If they support you, such interference can diminish your authority and even risks turning proceedings into a “lynching”. On the other hand, if they support Leslie, you will find yourself in a position where your authority and decisions are being questioned, and you are being unreasonably forced to justify your actions. At best, witnesses to the reprimanding will feel conflicted between their support and possible friendship with Leslie and their desire to re-establish order and calm. 

Restore equilibrium

Once you have spoken to Leslie in private, follow the appropriate procedures required by your organisation. It is unwise to recount to colleagues what has been said to or by him. However, if his role is going to change and/or work processes will be amended, these should be explained to the team formally and dispassionately.

Learning points

  • Likely outcomes of public reprimanding include endless discussions within the team, which waste time and create division; reduced loyalty, trust and respect; and increased stress and lowered morale within the group.
  • If you think reproaching Leslie in public validates your importance and status, think again. As a rule – the more critical you feel and the louder you are when reprimanding someone in front of others, the more arrogant and boorish you appear.
  • There is no upside to admonishing Leslie for his undeniably negligent behaviour in front of his peers and subordinates. And if you are tempted to sack him on the spot, don’t. Sack him in private, preferably after cooling down and taking appropriate advice on the consequences.
  • If the situation involves imminent or actual physical danger (on a construction site, for example), the appropriate action is to take control immediately from the incompetent manager. Only once the situation has been safely stabilised should you take steps to reprimand or discipline.

Author: Jeremy McTeague

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