The law of unintended consequences can wreak havoc on unwary managers. You can enact seemingly sensible rules or take well-meaning measures, only to discover that your best intentions backfired.
The key is to learn from experience so that you avoid unintended consequences that sting. Here are examples of "smart" moves that can go awry:
Declaring "no e-mail" Fridays. The chief operating officer of U.S. Cellular attempted to lighten employees' workload and encourage face-to-face interaction by imposing a ban on nonessential e-mail on Fridays. But as The Wall Street Journal reported, workers rebelled. They resented the resulting inconveniences of this new rule.Solution: Instead of restricting employees' freedom, reward them if they behave the way you want. In this example, the manager could give prizes to workers who voluntarily avoid e-mail one day a week and use the time to meet colleagues or customers in person.
Beginning your presentations with humor. You assume that your peers and bosses expect you to open your speech with a splash of humor, so you oblige. But you're no comedian. Your joke falls flat--and even offends a few people.
Solution: Recover by saying, "Now that we've established I'm not comedy-club material, let's get down to business." Next time, skip the stab at humor and open with a startling fact, riddle or anecdote to grab everyone's attention.
Dishing out daily praise. Some supervisors follow a self-imposed rule in which they praise at least one employee per day. This supposedly holds their feet to the fire to look for what's going right--and recognize it. But workers can distinguish between sincere praise and someone who's forcing it.
Solution: Instead of racing around looking for someone to compliment every day, track your ratio of praise to criticism. Beware of overdosing on critiques while withholding positive comments.
Seasoned managers take these precautionary steps before implementing new rules or accepting conventional wisdom:
Seek counsel. Ask peers and wise outsiders for input prior to announcing a new policy to your staff. Encourage your advisors to share their experiences in grappling with a similar challenge. You may benefit from their mistakes. Run a test. Experiment with a new procedure for a week or two and gauge the results. Invite your employees to give feedback. That enables you to identify unintended consequences before it's too late.
Challenge your assumptions. Must you open every presentation with a joke? Is it always necessary to sandwich criticism between two slices of praise? Question generally accepted "truths" and weigh your options. Blazing a new path can stop you from falling into an old trap.
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