#085: 9 Steps to Employee Growth through Discipline

There comes a time in the life of every manager when an employee crosses the line. Whether on purpose or by accident every employee has made mistakes that justify discipline.

Employee Discipline

But discipline is another of the subjects you’ll be hard-pressed to find out much about in textbooks or business magazines. It’s too bad really because most managers get their skills at disciplining employees from how their parents or bosses disciplined them. And where did they get their skills? From their parents and bosses, of course!

It’s like a lady who always cuts off the end of her roast before she put it in the pan. A friend asked why and she said, “Because my mother always did.” So one day she asked her mother why she cut off the end of her roasts and her mother said, “Because your grandmother always did.” When asked why she cut off the ends of her roast grandma said, “So they would fit in my small roasting pan!” Far, far too many managers provide discipline to their employees the way someone else did without much thought about whether it was a good approach.

To some managers, the words discipline and punishment are interchangeable, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Webster says that punishment is, “a suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution,” or “a penalty inflicted on an offender through judicial procedure.” The word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina meaning teaching, or learning. Mr. Webster defines discipline as, “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” Perhaps that is why Dr. James Dobson named his best-selling book Dare To Discipline, rather than Dare To Punish! Given a choice, I would much rather work for a boss who understands and appreciates the differences between punishment and discipline.

There are occasions when a manager’s best course of action is punishment. Some employees will steal, use drugs, or start fights. Under these circumstances, punishment like a demotion, probation, or termination is the best solution. However, most employees need discipline far more frequently than they need punishment.

Seek First Understanding

Before you can consider whether or not to discipline, it is important to be clear about the entire situation. A verse from Proverbs says, “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Prov. 4:7). There isn’t much room for negotiating here; at all costs, get understanding.

Before you consider disciplinary options ask yourself these four questions:

  • Why has discipline become necessary?
  • Have I made my expectations clear?
  • Am I consistent?
  • What is the best way to deal with the situation?

Discipline Basics

Effective discipline is a learned skill. Here are nine elements of growth discipline:

1. Cool Your Jets

The ability to control yourself is as important as your ability to discipline others; “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42).

The time to discipline is not when you are angry. Get control of yourself, then proceed.

2. Get the Facts

Remember the famous line from Sergeant Joe Friday of the TV show Dragnet, “Just facts ma’am, just the facts.” Innuendo and guess-work are not the basis for growth discipline; only facts. There are four key things to consider:

  • Check the employee’s record. Review employment records and personnel files to know as much about the individual as possible.
  • Check for previous problems. Is this the first error this employee has made? Is it the first of this type, or is this a habitual problem for this employee?
  • See for yourself. Whenever possible physically examine the plant, the machine, or the office where the error occurred to get a better understanding of what happened.
  • Estimate the costs. An insurance adjuster always estimates the damage to your car before he says it is totaled. Likewise, you should estimate the cost of the error. Be careful not to make mountains out of molehills. On the other hand, if the error is costly, be prepared to explain why.

3. Build the Right Climate

Creating the right climate will make your discipline more effective:

  • Watch your attitude. Let the employee see that you want to correct a situation rather than beat them into submission.
  • Find the right place. Select a private, neutral place to administer discipline. No employee relishes criticism in front of co-workers. A neutral place like a small conference room will provide a more open atmosphere where the employee will feel less threatened.

4. Prepare Ahead

Being organized is key and requires advance preparation. Here are four steps to help you stay organized:

  • Purpose. Organize the material around the main purpose of the meeting: training that will lead to increased performance.
  • Specific. Be very specific with your comments. Avoid general terms like, “You always,” or “You never.” What you “think” is not important, only the facts.
  • Goal. Decide ahead of time what improvement you’re expecting. But remember that the employee will be more likely to work toward a goal he or she sets versus one you impose.
  • Balance. Most employees do most things right. Don’t let this turn into a gripe session where you haul out a laundry list of every petty thing that has ever gone wrong and thereby ignore the good things the employee has done.

5. Be Fair

Three keys to fairness include clear job expectations, treating employees alike, and knowing what you’re qualified to do:

  • Focus on job expectations, not on personalities. Whether you like someone shouldn’t matter. Focus on the behavior that needs correcting, not on the individual. Jesus hated the sin but loved the sinners.
  • Being fair is tough. Not because you want to treat some people better than others, but because it is our nature to treat people we like better than ones we don’t. We are commanded, “Use honest scales and honest weights.” (Lev. 19:36). The verse doesn’t say to be fair to just the people you like.
  • Know your limits. Some employees need professional counseling. Don’t be afraid to refer employees to professionals who can help them.

6. Plot a New Course

The purpose of growth discipline is to train and develop the employee. The way you do this is very important.

  • Opening remarks. Set the stage carefully. Your objective is honest, open two-way communication.
  • Are you to blame? You may think you know everything but ask the question “Am I to blame?” If you contributed to the problem in the eyes of the employee you need to address it up front.
  • Listen. The tongue is a nasty little animal to control but put a muzzle on it while you listen to what the employee has to say. You may have jumped to the wrong conclusion, and if not, you’ll, at least, confirm your understanding.
  • Focus on behavior. Criticize what was done (or not done), not the person. Growth discipline requires the employee maintain their dignity as you work together. Calling someone names, questioning their mental capacity, or referring to the type of boots their mother wore is not appropriate.

7. Be Positive

Discipline should be focused on improving performance for next time rather than on criticizing current mistakes. This doesn’t mean you overlook the cost of the mistakes, but focus on how to avoid them in the future. As important as your first words are, don’t overlook the opportunity to close on a positive note. It is the best way to encourage an employee to improve.

8. Employee Involvement

An employee who is asked for solutions to a problem will have to think the situation through carefully and may come up with better ideas than you did. Even though the employee made a mistake that required discipline doesn’t mean they aren’t a valuable resource in developing a solution.

9. Follow-Up

The only thing worse than not disciplining an employee is doing it and then not following up. Employees who make the effort to improve deserve recognition. For those employees who do not improve, regular follow-up meetings will bring their shortcomings to light.

One Final Thought

Remember, discipline is training and teaching. Growth discipline occurs when you focus on helping an employee grow through the process. This kind of discipline is completely different than punishment. Punishment is a course you take when attempts at discipline have failed. It may include probation or as a last resort, termination.

Discipline is best administered as close to the time of the error as possible. Let the employee know specifically what the problem is and how it varies from the expectations. Make sure that you have not been part of the problem. Ask the employee to develop a plan to correct the problem or to ensure that it does not come up again. This is where the real growth in growth discipline occurs: when the employee figures out for himself or herself what went wrong and what to do about it. Make sure as you conclude that the employee knows that their contributions are highly valued.

Realize, when it’s done, it’s done. Don’t bring it up again. Covering the same ground over and over is a great way to crush the employee’s spirit. This is not discipline, it is revenge!

Bonus Whitepaper

Nine Steps to Employ Growth Through Discipline is also available in the form of a bonus whitepaper. This 12-page bonus whitepaper includes tons more information about building up your employees through discipline, some great quotes about discipline, a real-life case, some meeting notes to help you run a meeting with your team, and ten of the most egregious discipline mistakes. You can download it here:

 Bonus Whitepaper Growth_Discipline  

Join the Conversation

As always questions and comments are welcome! Have you suffered through working for a boss who didn’t understand the basics of building an organization through discipline? What happened? Have you made mistakes in disciplining employees? If so, what was the impact on the employee? On you?

I’d love your help. This blog is read primarily because people like you share it with friends. Would you share it by pressing one of the share buttons below?

Category: Skills | Discipline

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.