The Leadership of Discipline

By Janie Warner

Employee discipline is arguably one of the more difficult tasks supervisors, managers, directors and executives must tackle. For a variety of reasons, the process is daunting, distracting and dreaded. Discipline requires us to step outside of our comfort zone and confront employees for acts of omission and commission in order to maintain order in the workplace. While it is necessary, it certainly is not enjoyable.

Employees hear “punishment” when employers say the word “discipline.” But what if the word “discipline” could have a positive connotation? What if, rather than dreading a confrontation with an employee over an infraction, we were able to look forward to interacting with our direct reports and working toward a solution we could both live with? And what if we approached employee discipline as an imperative of true LEADERSHIP?

The term discipline comes from “discipulus,” the Latin term for “pupil.” The term is also the origin of the word “disciple” – a follower. When we look at the term in this light, it’s obvious that as leaders, we should take disciplinary action as a form of mentorship – or training and teaching – rather than as a form of punishment for misdeeds.

As leaders, our jobs are to use the tools at our disposal in an effective manner to guide our organizations toward the achievement of our corporate mission. Our mission statement answers the question, “Why does our organization exist?” Ultimately, all the work we do, all the decisions we make, and all the actions we take should be in pursuit of achieving our mission.

Even discipline.

So how do we, as leaders, go about changing the perception of discipline from a punitive action to a positive initiative? Let’s consider three options.

  1. Less talking and more LISTENING – It seems intuitive that when speaking with an employee we would actually hear what they are saying. However, we often do all the talking. We look at the discipline process in a linear progression. Employee messes up. Manager finds out. Manager completes a disciplinary action form. Manager meets with employee and tells employee, “You messed up.” Manager metes out punishment. Manager tells employee (sternly) “Don’t mess up again or there will be more punishment.” Employee signs form and walks away embarrassed, discouraged and, very often, angry.

What if when the manager heard about a problem, they immediately spoke to the employee? What if instead of accusations and punishment, the manager asked: “What happened? Do you think it could have been prevented? If yes, how? What did you learn from this mistake? Is there anything I, as manager, could have done to prevent this? What do you think the organization can do to help others avoid the same mistake?”

If discipline is about discipleship, then what are we teaching our followers in our disciplinary protocol? Are we creating resentful, fearful subjects? Or are we allowing then to talk through the problems so that they truly learn something in the process?

  1. Share the WHY – Not every employee will understand every policy. While they most likely know what to do and what not to do, they will not always understand the importance of the policy/rule/guideline in terms of the work. For example, every employee knows that attendance is important. They know being tardy is a no-no. But often, employees are perplexed when they are willing to “make up the time” and their supervisor is still pushing for being present and being on time. The manager should explain how customers are directly affected when employees are not where they are supposed to be at the time expected. An inconvenienced customer is an unhappy customer, and unhappy customers will not return to our business, as well as spread the word to others. Explaining the “why” is often the first step to true understanding by the employee. This can be a great teaching moment! If the manager doesn’t understand the why, it is imperative he or she learns BEFORE the disciplinary meeting. Otherwise, the employee will be left just feeling punished.
  2. Highlight the MISSION – As stated earlier, everything we do in management is geared toward the achievement of our corporate mission. It is vitally important to tie discipline to specific policy and then to tie policy directly to the mission. If our mission statement is that “We exist to be the best retailer in the southeastern United States,” then (using our attendance example again) being at work on time makes our customers happy, and having many happy customers helps us achieve our goal. When employees are constantly reminded of the mission of their organization, they are more likely to start thinking of it before they are in a position to make decisions for their behaviors.

As leaders, when we start seeing our positions as mentors and teachers, we find ourselves more satisfied with our work. Treating our employees as disciples will benefit the entire organization. When we treat them respectfully as students, we can look forward to the excitement of an educated staff who understands their jobs and their mission in a whole new way.

Janie Warner Senior Advisor Regions Insurance Group, Inc. janie.warner www.regions

Janie Warner
Senior Advisor
Regions Insurance Group, Inc.