The slow handclap

… or how not to motivate your staff

In a previous job we had a team meeting each morning at 9:15. The purpose was to go around the team and in almost scrum like fashion tell everyone what you did, what you’re planning to do and anything holding things up. Occasionally it would also allow people to tell others about some useful new technology or way of doing things that may be of benefit to others.

This was great, however one team member occasionally turned up late. Sometimes due to traffic, but often due to a long running medical complaint that had come out of remission. As a result he earned the displeasure of the development team’s manager.

One morning this manager faced with this individual being late once again instructed his team that any time someone arrives into the meeting late they were to receive a slow handclap. A gesture that indicates dissatisfaction or impatience [1].

A few minutes later the late comer arrived and the team started its slow handclap, egged on by a grinning manager. I joined in. However, something was intensely uncomfortable about it.

The next time the late comer arrived mid-meeting the team again started its slow handclap. This time I didn’t join in. And it clicked what had made me so uncomfortable the first time around. A slow handclap is a gesture designed to publically humiliate the person it is aimed against, which was why I felt so uncomfortable about it.

While it might be perfectly acceptable and understandable for a group of people to spontaneously employ a slow handclap against a politician making a speech, say, the Women’s Institute against the then Prime Minister [2], it is most definitely not acceptable for a manager to employ his staff into joining him in a bit of group bullying.

For a group who have less power it can be effective to help redress the balance to some degree. The WI against the PM, for example. However, for it to be employed by someone who already has power against someone who does not, a manager against a junior team member, it is inexcusable.


  1. That is just nasty and grounds for bullying. You should never ever ever put down a staff member in front of others.

  2. Nathan says:

    If you have a member of the team disrespecting the rest of the team by not being on time how do you handle it?

    Teams deciding on ‘forfeits’ themselves that everybody agrees to can be a good way to handle it, one of the funniest being singing “I’m a little teapot” complete with actions.

    1. Colin Mackay says:

      Not by humiliating the person publicly, that’s for sure, and especially when it is initiated or approved by a manager. Your “I’m a little teapot” story is also an example of public humiliation and must have had the approval (even at least implicitly if it wasn’t quickly stopped) by a manager to have been allowed to continue.

  3. Nathan says:

    Colin the teapot forfeit was instigated by the team with the agreement of the whole team, no manager was involved in the decision.

    If the whole team were happy with it why should a manager stop it?

    The bigger issue is how do you get people to understand how disrespectful it is to everybody else not turning up on till without causing ill feeling in the team? However if the rest of the team don’t care I think there is a far bigger problem to be addressed before tackling one late individual.

    1. Colin Mackay says:

      Were the whole team really genuinely happy with it? What about the weaker one’s? And I mean those with lower self-esteme or self-confidence that felt they couldn’t speak up against such a humiliating bullying tactic.

      A manager should have stopped it because a good manager would have realised that bullying employees (even by their peers) is ethically and legally wrong. It is grounds for dismissal for gross misconduct.

      If you can be absolutely 100% sure that every single person who subscribed to the “I’m a little teapot” thing was genuinely 100% happy with it, then maybe it was fine. But if you cannot make that assertion (and many people, especially those who feel weak, won’t tell you how they genuinely feel) then you should never ever allow a humiliating forfeit, even if the team say it is fine to do so.

  4. Nathan says:

    Colin I can confirm the whole team were happy with it.

    I think the key thing to know is that the forfeit never had to be enacted since everybody turned up on time, not due to the possibility of having to “perform” but because we understood why we should not be late.

    1. Colin Mackay says:

      I’m not disagreeing with on whether the whole team *said* they were happy with it. I’m saying that they may not have *actually* been happy with it.

  5. Another example of this style of public humiliation in order to effect a change in behaviour is noted in this article:

    The punishment encourages bullying, allowing students to publicly taunt the teens.

    And while the punishment only lasted an hour, Charles [Crockett, 14] says he skipped school the next day because the teasing became unbearable.

    And I think that “teasing” is incredibly understated. The taunts were tantamount to bullying.

    The [school] district isn’t standing behind the principal’s move. District officials have released a statement, which reads in part:

    “The district does not condone the choice of in-school discipline given these students, regardless of their acceptance or willingness to participate. District leadership will address this matter with the school principal, and review district protocol regarding student discipline with all administrators.”

    As the article notes, the punishment was effective. But it was because it shamed, humiliated and bullied those involved into changing their behaviour. The punishment encouraged the boys’ peers to use homophobic taunts and as has been seen recently in America with a number of high profile suicides by teenagers who were subjected to taunts about their sexuality, some of whom were not even gay but felt so shamed by it that they took this action.

    Shaming a person deals them a blow to their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth which can have catastrophic consequences and is never the right way to punish a person.

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