The Cough Medicine Approach

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Growing up, whenever one of us exhibited the first sign of a cold, my mother would line my sisters and me up for a dose of cough medicine.

Now it didn’t matter that only one of us was sick, we all got the medicine. If you think this through, giving each of us something whether or not we needed it, was certainly fair, but not necessarily helpful.

We see “the cough medicine” approach quite regularly with managers. A recent example was an employee who wasn’t following the dress code. Instead of someone having a conversation with him to explain and reset the expectation, they wrote a completely new (and much stricter dress code) policy and rolled it out to the entire organization.

In a nutshell, one person made a mistake and now everyone is lined up for the medicine.

This approach is unhelpful for several reasons:

  • Lack of clarity – more often than you would expect, the person who has failed to meet expectations doesn’t know they have missed the mark, so they aren’t likely to realize everyone else is suffering because of them.
  • Undermines the manager’s competency and credibility – your employees watch to see how you handle things. Failure to do so leaves them wondering how they can trust you to take care of other issues.
  • Bad for morale – like it or not, in a situation like this, everyone knows who the medicine is actually intended for and they begrudge getting it too. In turn, they will likely resent the person they see as being responsible, which can lead to a lack of trust between them and the rest of the team.

So, what could be done instead?

  • First and foremost, check to see that they were aware of the expectation. We can’t hold people responsible for that which they honestly didn’t know about. If, for any reason, they weren’t aware of the policy, tell them about it. Provide a copy and explain what it means and why it is in place. Also, be sure to tell them what will happen if they don’t comply.
  • If you determine they did know, find out why they didn’t meet the expectation. “The dress code states _____. You arrived wearing _____. What happened?” Give them a chance to explain what occurred and listen carefully. Remain engaged and don’t leap to judgement. This is supposed to be a learning conversation, so pay careful attention and remain curious, not punitive.
  • Once you understand what happened, explore if there is any problem solving to be done, then reset the expectation and let them know what will happen if they don’t comply. In this example, a lack of clean laundry could have led to a policy violation. Explore how they can be better prepared and then remind them of the expectation they will be comply with the policy and any consequences that will arise if they fail to do so.

Every once in a while, you will determine a new policy for everyone is the right approach. But always let it come from careful consideration and a cohesive strategic plan, not a lone cough.