>Timeouts for Professionals—Ouch


Experts have been teaching parents for years to discipline children, when needed, with timeouts. This is seen as a combined rehabilitative and punitive method to deal with “bad” behavior. The idea is that the child has time to reflect on what they did “wrong” and how they can do better in the future. It also functions as a way to sort of “punish” the child to teach them that there are consequences to their actions, like having to sit in inaction for a period of time. Of course, time-outs also serve the purpose of a “cooling off” period for both parent and child when things are heating up.

Interestingly enough, like many things in life, adults, in a sense, are just big children. And the time-out method doesn’t end in childhood. This method of discipline is used in the workplace as well.

I have seen and heard story after story of people at work who do something “wrong” (whether as defined by objective policy or more often it seems by some subjective management whim) and they get sidelined. They get moved off into a corner—with the proverbial dunce cap on their heads—where they can do no harm. They are for all intensive purposes ignored. They are not assigned any meaningful or significant work. They are neutered.

Unlike a child’s timeout though, an adult timeout may be for a period of time or this may be permanent—no one knows in advance.

Just as with a child, the adult timeout is both punitive and possibly rehabilitative. Punitively, it is supposed to take the “problem” worker out of the larger workplace equation, and it therefore hurts their career, personal and professional learning and growth, and their self-esteem. In terms of rehabilitation, I imagine some may think that like a child, the adult will have time to reflect on what they did wrong—if they even know what they did—and commit to never doing it again—to be a better employee in the future.

Well, why don’t employers just help the employee to do better in their jobs by coaching, mentoring, training, providing constructive feedback, counseling and if necessary taking other corrective actions–why the childish timeouts?

Perhaps, managers think it is easier to just “ignore” a problem—literally—or to handle it quietly and subtly, rather than “confronting” the employee and having to work with them over time to improve.

Unfortunately, this erroneous thinking—the desire to handle it the “easy way out”—is reinforced by often-archaic performance management systems that do not distinguish between employee performances. They neither meaningfully reward or recognize good performance nor discourage poor employee performance.

Certainly, it is important to have fairness, objectivity, and controls in any performance management system, but this needs to be balanced with managing our human capital in a way that is good for the organization and good for the employee.

We cannot continue to manage our employees like children. We cannot punish people for honest mistakes at work that were unintentional, not malicious, and done in good faith and best effort in performance of their jobs.

Instead, we need to manage people with maturity. We need to identify where the issues are, emphasize where appropriate, understand what can be done to correct problems, and work with employees on how they can learn and grow.

Alternatively, we need to handle true performance issues and not bury them indefinitely in timeouts. Our organizations and our employees need to move past childish modes of performance management and handle people decisively, with measured intent, and with absolute integrity.