General reprimand and peer pressure are not effective management techniques


My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sadist, was a master of peer pressure. The problem was, it never had the desired effect. When one student was misbehaving, she made the rest of the class stay in for recess. Instead of blaming him for our misfortune, we hardened our dislike for her. When she embarrassed a fellow classmate by catching him talking to another student, we didn’t laugh to shame him into silence, we resolved to join forces with him, passing notes of support and rebellion. 

Unfortunately, some managers must have had teachers with a similar style but they actually thought their tactics were effective. For example, when one of their employees develops a pattern for showing up late for work, or making too many personal phone calls, the manager uses a staff meeting to set the person straight. “I’ve been noticing some bending of the rules lately. Just a reminder to all of you that personal calls are to be kept to a minimum and work starts at 8 am, not 8:15.” 

The non-offenders—though they might be relieved that the manager is finally stepping in to correct the behavior—tend to think, “Excuse me? Why are you grouping all of us into the same category? Why don’t you get up the guts to confront the person directly, instead of subjecting the rest of us to this general reprimand?” 

All we ever needed to learn about group behavior can be learned in the fourth grade. 

  • Rule number one: Single out the offender, don’t reprimand the whole group.
But, you might ask, how do you convey to the whole group that you have taken action to correct the problem, if you don’t say something in a meeting? After all, you’ve probably had people coming to you to complain, so you want to reassure them that the problem has been dealt with. A preferred approach is to speak to the person privately and any co-worker who brings the subject up is simply told, “It’s being handled.” Another benefit is that it demonstrates to other co-workers that their issues will be kept private, too.
  • Rule number two: If you embarrass someone in front of a group, the group will turn on you.
For example, consider a manager or committee chair, who is speaking to a group. Two people are whispering to each other and the leader says, “So, do you two want to tell the rest of the group what’s so interesting?” Didn’t this person learn anything in the fourth grade? The group is going to turn on the leader like a pack of wolves. Their eyes will narrow, their arms will cross and the only thing you will hear from them for the rest of the meeting is a low growl. Even if the group agrees with your intentions, they will not respect your approach.

Here are some alternative techniques that get the desired response, without the hostility.

Side conversations

If two people are talking in a meeting, and it’s becoming a distraction, you need to respectfully bring them back into the group. One way to do this is to pause and smile kindly. Often the silence will be enough to catch their attention. If they miss your hint, call on someone (who is attentive) sitting close to them, to provide his or her opinion. This usually gets their attention without embarrassing them. When they hear someone talking nearby, they usually break up their conversation.

If that fails, call a break or speak to them after the meeting. A gentle, “Hey, guys what was I missing during the meeting? You two were really engaged in a conversation... I was hoping you would give your input on our topic.” You never know if the conversation was relevant or not, so jumping on them too harshly could be counterproductive.
Quiet members

Quiet members tend to be ignored and the leader ends up making eye contact with the most vocal members, so it’s very important to keep bringing all the participants into the conversation.

Some people hate speaking up in a group. Others try, but are mowed down by more aggressive participants. A good way to bring in a quiet person is to acknowledge their experience on a topic and then ask their opinion. “John, you’ve been here the longest, what do you anticipate the problems will be with the implementation?” By setting up the topic—not catching them daydreaming—you will provide a safe way for them to participate.
Dominating members

If a person steals all the air time, you need to give others a chance to speak without offending the talker. Wait for the person to take a breath and then say, “That’s interesting…what do the rest of you think?” Another approach is to summarize their long-winded opinion, thank the person and then change the topic. 

Hostile or negative participant

This can kill the conversation unless you are ready to diffuse the situation. Don’t attack or scold. A better approach is to restate the negative comment in neutral words and then throw it to the group. Take the example, “This new policy sounds like typical BS from senior management!” Restate it in neutral words: “It doesn’t sound like you think the new policy will be effective. Do the rest of you feel this way?” Usually the group will diffuse the situation by offering other opinions. Taking the comment seriously instead of defensively demonstrates an open attitude and tends to squelch the heckler. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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