Management by exception is the practice of focusing only on those things that went wrong, and not concerning yourself with what went well or according to plan.
And it’s a terrible leadership tool.
Yet, in organizations across the land, managers (not leaders) focus on the negative, the mistakes, and the errors, rarely reinforcing what went right or great. Or on the remarkable.
My daughter started playing Field Hockey for the first time this year as a Freshman in High School. While she’s played soccer for many years, this is a new sport with new equipment and new rules. So as you might guess, there’s plenty of room for mistakes.
A few days ago she scored her first goal. After the game, the coach could have taken the opportunity tell each player what she did wrong, focusing only on the errors. Instead, she gave out a small, sparkly sticker in the shape of a star for the girls who scored goals and told them to put the stickers on their hockey sticks. No mention of mistakes – just reinforcement of what went right and public recognition of an important achievement in the game – scoring goals.
With this little gesture, my daughter was on Cloud Nine. She skipped all the way to the car and told everyone of her accomplishment and the sticker that went along with it. In the process, other girls on the team resolved to get a sticker of their own. She posted it on Facebook and friends and family jumped in with congratulations.
Now, she wants more stickers. And to get them, she knows she must score more goals.
So the next time you feel the urge to be a Bitter Bart or Debbie Downer by nit-picking some small thing with your staff, think about the consequence. Will that really motivate her to do better? Sure, big mistakes should be addressed early and often. But we know the majority of these things are usually inconsequential and won’t matter in a week.
And please, let’s make this “management by exception” thing a thing of the past.
Have you ever been managed by exception? How did it make you feel?