Don’t coddle me at work

Don't coddle me at work

Some businesses seem to think that they must protect their employees from all the dangers of working life.

Before people can be happy at work, the thinking goes, they must be shielded from all manner of ills: angry customers, unrealistic deadlines, unfair decisions, overwork, boring meetings, stress, annoying co-workers, insecurity, diffiult situations, hard choices – you name it.


The best and happiest workplaces in the world haven’t become so by shielding their people from problems, but by giving their people the skills, the energy and the freedom to deal constructively with problems.

We must of course work consistently to solve the problems in our workplaces, but happiness at work does not come from eliminating them altogether in an effort to create an ideal, idyllic work environment. Which is a good thing, because we never will. The perfect, trouble-free, garden-of-eden workplace does not exist. It never will. Trust me!

The people I have met who really, truly love their jobs are certainly not coddled by their workplace. They are nurtured, not protected. They are helped, not shielded. They do magnificent work and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They succeed in spite of the odds. They face down challenges that let them grow and learn.

Here are some areas where businesses can change their thinking and help their people grow instead of coddling them.

1: Know that we WANT to do great work

Very few people come to work to be mediocre. But many people have the drive and exhuberance knocked out of them early on in their careers.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, wrote something great in his excellent book The Chaordic Age:

Given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things.

We want to do great work. But not if the organization plans for and expects mediocrity from us. Expect great things from us and we’ll deliver.

2: Dont’ shackle us with rules and regulations

People can think for themselves. Setting up elaborate rules for every possible situation is not really a reflection on employees’ needs – it’s probably a reflection of management’s need for control. Or the illusion of control.

Nordstroms, a department store famous for it’s good service, gives it’s employees very wide latitude to make decisions. Here are their corporate rules:

Rule #1: In all situations, use your good judgment.
There will be no additional rules.

That’s all the rules we really need. One reader of this blog said this in a comment:

The place where I work is managed by good people who donít want to be bureaucratic jerks, but they canít grasp one simple concept: they are giving me money in exchange for doing something I loveĖthey donít have to shackle me with schedules and policies to get me to produce! I will be here working my little heart out because *I want to be*.

3: Allow us to fail – and allow us to learn from it

Businesses can’t protect their people from failing. Failure happens everywhere. The important question is how failure is handled. Is it treated as something shameful and wrong that must be hidden – or as a learning opportunity?

Menlo Innovations has a big banner hanging in their main office. It says “Fail faster”. THAT is a good attitude to failure. Don’t avoid it, because failure is a necessary part of progress. But fail as soon as possible to learn as much as possible.

4: Tell us what we can do better

Another failure of coddling, is when employees are never criticized. In some workplaces, you will never get constructive feedback on the things you did wrong or badly – either out of a desire to protect people or to avoid potential conflict. This is a bad idea.

We want to know when we do great work. We also want to know when we can do better. It may not be as much fun as being praised, but we need it. And we can take it – we’re not that fragile :o)

The best workplaces praise people whenever there’s a reason to do so. And this makes it much easier to also tell people what they can do better.

Of course some workplaces only criticize and never praise. That is a really bad idea, that leads to nothing but cynicism.

5: Let us do it

Let people act themselves. If management steps in every time to micromanage or to solve problems for employees, how will they know what they can do on their own?

And, hey, maybe the employees’ way was actually better than anything management could come up with. The only thing wrong with it was that it wasn’t management’s way.

Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Semco, describes in his excellent book The Seven-Day Weekend how his executives have one very important leadership strategy: Inaction. To NOT interfere. They believe that once top leadership steps in and clears up a situation, they must now do so every time a similar situation occurs. When they step back and let people fix it themselves, they increase the organization’s ability to deal with these issues without them.

The upshot

Rather than focus solely on reducing the number of problems employees face in the workplace, it’s vital that businesses focus even more on giving people the skills, the energy and the freedom to do something about those problems.

No adult is happy at work when he is coddled and protected. We want to be challenged and to have the skills, energy and freedom to overcome those challenges.

This does not mean throwing people to the sharks to see who survives. Some organizations give their employees absolutely no support, help or encouragement, which is probably even worse, and certainly makes no one happy at work.

The organization must still help people, back them up, help them grow. But trying to protect us and to set up rules and regulations for all possible contingencies, the way parents protect their children, does not make us happy. It makes us powerless. And that is the worst thing you can do to people.

What’s your thinking on this? Where is your organization on the “throw them to the sharks” – “coddle them to death” continuum?

4 thoughts on “Don’t coddle me at work”

  1. Preventing unhappiness will also deprive you from happiness.

    It’s like removing valleys that make the mountains disappear.
    It’s like shortening the marathon..
    It’s like a lottery with a money-back guarantee.
    It’s like a sponge hammer that won’t hurt you when hitting your fingers.

  2. Pingback: Great comments
  3. It’s why i’m moving from a small town to nyc! Most of my jobs have engaged in coddling for whatever their motives were…..don’t know? In small towns, coworkers (when training you) will tell you all of the common sense info while leaving out the basic facts. It seems the older the person is from suburbia, the more they want to be your mother.

    what i love about nyc is that it is hard! this challenges me so i can see what i can do and maybe the paths i could take in specializing those challenges! small towns take all of this away from me by being soft, parental, coddling, and smothering.

    and, to make matters worse, if you fight it……you then become a target from the gossip group as a person who is a snob or know-it-all.

    i swear ……..i think i’m going to take my 2pennies i have in the bank and get to nyc fast before my life passes me by and is stolen by small towners.

    yes this post is passionate because i’m fed up! its’ been 30 YEARS!

    so now i want to retire in nyc…….and never look back!

  4. Sad to say, I don’t think your “middle way” is going to win many adherents, and I don;t imagine that it has in the 3 1/2 years since you posted this originally.

    “Coddling” in the popular imagination doesn’t mean protecting your people from EVERYTHING, it means protecting them from ANYTHING. If you don’t throw them to the sharks, you’re coddling. Helping your people grow, backing up your people, being there for them in any way at all is weakness now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.