Blanket Parties

Far be it from me to advocate violence in the workplace. But…

There was a time when it was not uncommon in the US military (in fact, it probably was not uncommon in the Roman legions 2000 years ago) to have a blanket party. Generally speaking, it was employed when a member of a unit was performing poorly and bringing the unit’s overall performance down (and possibly subjecting the entire unit to some kind of official punishment). His peers would approach the offender while he slept, throw a blanket over him so he could not see who was there, and then beat him up. The goal was to get this person to realize he needed to shape up. Very often, it worked.

Whether or not blanket parties still happen often, I don’t know. In over 21 years in the military I never heard of it in my units, but of course I was in the Air Force and we tended to take a different approach to things than the other services anyway. Any kind of physical abuse like that is a criminal act, and when someone gets caught doing it the news is very public and very critical, so maybe it really is less common these days. In any case, while I abhor the use of violence to correct a performance problem, I do understand the spirit behind it.

No matter how good your recruiting process is, you are probably going to have some underachievers in your workforce. While we like to think that we only hire very talented and very motivated people, sometimes one or both of those aspects are lacking. If the problem is talent, you have some options open to you in the form of professional development, and with any luck, that will help.

If the problem is attitude, though, then no training program is going to help. You have a few options, such as

– ignoring it

– having other employees step in and say something

– discussing it with them yourself

– firing them

Think of that list as being in increasing order of severity, and realize that, as you take a step, you cannot really go backwards anymore. So there is a benefit to resolving problems at the lowest possible level, and if you decide that simply ignoring it is not an option, then it might be better to have the individual’s peers step in.

It’s tough to just suggest that out of the blue, though. It is difficult to go to your employees and say “I need you to go talk to Robert about his attitude” if there is no history of peers saying something. What you need for this to work is a culture that encourages that sort of internal correction.

What does that culture look like? Rather than being an environment where everyone is constantly looking for others’ mistakes, it instead is one where support and encouragement are just as common as criticism. People need to be invested in the success of the organization, not just in their own success. Your employees need a good day-to-day working relationship so that an “intervention” today does not hurt the ability to work together later. Just as football players can come together in a huddle and tell a receiver “drop another easy pass and I’ll break your leg,” and then smack each other with towels in the locker room later, so too do your employees need to be able to give and accept critiques without taking it personally (towel-smacking is optional).

Creating such a culture can be challenging, particularly in societies that tend to be individualistic rather than team-oriented, or in places where “face” is an essential part of life and no one wants to make others look bad. That idea of a team is something you really need to create, though, for this sort of early correction to work. Making sure employees understand each other’s roles helps impress upon everyone the importance of each individual’s contributions. An anonymous peer review process can get people used to the idea of giving and receiving feedback among employees. Setting expectations for feedback needs to start at the “new hire” point, in the interview process as well as in on-boarding, to help them integrate themselves into the ongoing conversation about performance. Do not wait until there is a problem and THEN try to get someone’s peers comfortable with the idea of stepping in.

And if all else fails, I guess you could always buy a blanket.

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