For anyone who’s worked in a fast paced environment he or she may be familiar with the phrase, “sink or swim”. This colloquial phrase is also known in several other variations: trial by fire, trial and error, etc. This management style focuses on employee’s ability to get task done with little to no guidance. For professions like public accounting, sink or swim has been one of the most common forms of management styles to train new employees. This style looks to wean out poor performing employees and identify super stars. However, what if the sink or swim mentality is doing a disservice to younger employees?
Sink or Swim vs Learning by Doing
Managers who implement the sink or swim management style often have good intentions. Most managers believe the best form of learning is by actually doing the task in which you’re being trained. Someone can read every book about swimming but you can’t say you know how to swim until you jump in the pool. Even though this thinking is based on “sound” reasoning it oversimplifies effective training.
Although some managers might disagree, sink or swim management styles do not actually teach employees how to swim; they simply teach employees how to tread water. The distinction between treading water and effectively swimming is actually quite important. With the proper tools and guidance, learning by doing allows employees to learn the right way to perform a task instead of arbitrarily performing task without purpose. Simply doing a task in and of itself does not teach an employee the right way to do something or even the reasoning behind the task in the first place.
Sink or Swim as an Excuse For Lack of Training
In most circumstances sink or swim management styles are implemented because of necessity. Managers and upper level staff members don’t have enough free time to effectively train entry level employees so they use the sink or swim management style to see if employees are able to train themselves.
Additionally, there is no incentive for management to train employees if annual reviews and raises are based on factors like realization and billable hours. Training an entry level employee on a simple task simply isn’t cost effective from the perspective of management.
Sink or Swim and Super Star Swimmers
One of the major reasons for using the sink or swim management style is to identify the star performers. Employees who are self-starters and are able to learn quickly on the job are seen as super stars; those employees who are unable to keep up are quickly terminated.
However, a team of well-trained swimmers is always more effective than a handful of super stars. Even more so, if the future success of a firm is predicated off of employees training themselves then the future leadership of the firm will be ill equipped.
Think of it this way, if a sports team fails to make it to the playoffs the first person to get fired is the coach. If an individual player is not meeting their expectations then they will be fired as well, however, the entire success of the team rest on the coach’s shoulders. The sink or swim management style, therefore, diminishes the role of management in effectively leading a team and instead pushes all of the responsibility of success on individual staff members.
Although the sink or swim management style might have good intentions it often produces poorly trained and dissatisfied staff members. Effective training and establishing incentives for management to take time to teach employees is the best way to train entry level employees.
If you are still unconvinced consider this hypothetical example. If you wanted to teach your child to be an Olympic swimmer would you rather enroll your child in a course taught by a former Olympic swimmer or taught by some guy who’s going to throw your child in the deep end and hope for the best. On the same token, would you trust the future of your firm to employees who can tread water or employees who can effectively swim?