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The Trouble With Discipline: Part I

"Perhaps one of the most prevalent errors is based on the idea that discipline is punishment." Robert Bacal, "Five Sins of Discipline"

Many years ago, I had to confront an employee about her recurring tardiness problem. It wasn't my first disciplinary conversation; over time, I'd dealt with everything from below-standard work performance to blatant theft, and I had developed a thick skin for the task. Nevertheless, in this case I was reluctant to have the necessary conversation.

You see, unlike most workers who are never on time, this woman was a valued employee. Despite her tardiness, she was uncommonly efficient and displayed remarkable personal initiative. What's more, she always tried to make up for being tardy by staying late. But I was duty bound to explain our expectation of punctuality; after all, her coworkers were arriving at work on time. So, notwithstanding my thick skin, I had wrestled with my unease long enough.

As it turned out, a chronic health issue was causing her morning tardiness. Learning the source of her lateness enabled me to provide a more flexible work schedule and help a good employee. My hesitation to address the problem had only prolonged resolving it. What took me so long?

On the whole, leaders associate discipline with punishment. In that sense, we think of discipline as something unpleasant we must do to an employee, rather than a process of resolving a problem with an employee. In fact, the widely used progressive discipline model is meant to correct employee behavior by doling out increasingly severe penalties. Verbal warnings are followed by written warnings. Then comes a final warning, or even a suspension. Finally, the employee is fired. Since meting out punishment in this fashion involves adversarial conflict, it's no wonder we tend to put off discipline as long as possible.

Whether they hope to avoid conflict or because they simply dread the process, the truth is that many managers don't earnestly begin discipline until they've already decided to fire the employee. And then it's not done to improve the employee's behavior, but to build a legally defensible case for termination.

However, Dick Grote, author of the book, Discipline Without Punishment, points out what most leaders overlook. "Termination is not the final step of the discipline system," says Grote. "More accurately, termination represents the failure of the discipline system."

Grote's point suggests that a change in mindset is necessary. The purpose of discipline should not be to punish people, but to help them alter undesirable behavior. Done correctly, it provides workers meaningful information about their current performance, attendance, or conduct, while helping them establish a plan for correcting mistakes. From that perspective, discipline is similar to coaching and should be a positive experience. But only if you keep punishment out of the mix.

Not only does punishment cause anxiety in the leaders who must inflict it, but it is also ineffective. In his article titled "Five Sins of Discipline," author and consultant Robert Bacal explains that punishment is meaningless unless employees (a) value what we take away from them; (b) believe that the penalty fairly fits the crime; and (c) respect the manager's right to issue the sentence. If all three conditions are not met, employees will resent the punishment. And the resulting side effects -- employee antagonism, indifference, and dissatisfaction -- can prove more disruptive than the original behavior.

If you associate discipline with punishment, you're undoubtedly frustrated with the results of your disciplinary efforts. Or else you're avoiding the process completely. Perhaps it's time to try a better approach.

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