How the discipline system in our workplaces is breaking our employees

Coaching needs a willing counterpart
It’s been around for eons – the progressive discipline system where an employee who steps out of line receives three warnings and then they’re out.  The more I observe the system in action though; I wonder if we are breaking our employees. We are almost certainly breaking the psychological contract we have with them, and reducing the trust.

I just don’t think the system works in today’s workplace era. Maybe it never did.

We are often very explicit about what needs to change in order to stem the inevitable progression to dismissal. We talk about how behavioural or performance needs to change an improve or else.

And here’s the irony of it all.

On the one hand, we want people to try out new ways of working (which we know inevitably comes with the risk of some mis-steps and mis-takes as people test new approaches). On the other hand, we want them to do this in an environment where there is no tolerance for slipping up. And where they are under increased scrutiny.

If you’ve ever been called before your boss, you’ll know the physiological response that often comes with that. Racing heart, sweaty palms and scattered thoughts. The brain goes into flight or fight mode almost immediately. Now add to that, the threat to your employment/livelihood that comes with a written warning.  The brain perceives it is under threat. Trying out new ways of working in fight/flight mode is hard. The brain is acting from a very primal state, not one of creativity and emotional intelligence.

Which is why the system often doesn’t work. And when it does “work” (in the sense that the employee is compliant and doesn’t misbehave further), it often comes at an enormous cost of broken trust.

So what could work?

Increasingly, organisations are moving away from once a year performance reviews because they realise they don’t work. They’re not just in time enough, feedback (good or bad) isn’t delivered in enough of a timely manner for the employee to do something about it. So, organisations are moving to weekly catch ups – or crowd sourcing feedback, or any other number of ways to let people know how they’re going.

How does this relate to the discipline system?

The change to the performance approach works because employees are clear about what is expected of them. And there’s almost immediate feedback when things they try aren’t quite working. Not punitive feedback, but feedback that they need to adjust course.

The same could be true of most disciplinary settings. If employees knew exactly what was expected of them, had the tools and training they needed to the job, and received timely feedback about how they were doing – they could self adjust.

Of course, this also relies on a culture of openness. One where conversations take place candidly and without fear of “saying the wrong thing”. It relies on a culture of positive regard for employees, and an expectation that most employees try to do the right thing most of the time. It assumes that people make mis-takes when they’re trying out new things and that isn’t always failure.

But what about…

I can hear you choking on your coffee as you think about the warnings you’ve issued along the way. And it is true, there are some instances where this approach isn’t appropriate. Where the behaviour is so out of line that there is no choice but to initiate formal and serious proceedings.

But, in many cases, if employees were given immediate, robust and honest feedback about how they were performing in line with company expectations and culture, the need for the formal warnings would reduce dramatically. Employees would self select out when they realised that they would be held to account.

And .. those employees who you really want to keep, but who did need some behavioural or other change, would be afforded the opportunity to try out new ways of working – without killing off the trust in the organisation and in you. Employees are more likely to try different approaches AND listen to feedback in an environment where their brain wasn’t telling them that they are under imminent threat.

Ultimately – it depends on what you are trying to achieve with the discipline system. If it’s about getting rid of an employee, it’s a long and painful way to achieve that. If it’s about effecting change – it rarely works, at least in the long term.

Where to from here?

If you would like to discuss how I could help you look at this subject differently, get in touch.

And if you’re still hungry for more, you can find my leadership book here. The book and website has a number of free resources on conflict, building a great team, and providing feedback.

Until next week, happy leading.

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