I was talking to a fellow administrator (Bill) the other day and he lamented about a problem employee. He said, “With Ed, it started as a warning, then a reprimand, and then a one-day suspension. He is still a discipline problem and has acted out again. I think we are going to recommend three days off this time.” Well, I thought, Bill is doing everything right according to Progressive Discipline 101. But if he was doing everything right, why was he having bad results? Bad results! Oh, contraire—soon he will have enough to fire Ed. Success!
What is the purpose of discipline? It should be to change behavior. If that is the purpose, than how could we see what Bill is doing as anything other than a failure?
Am I being too harsh on Bill? Not at all. We as leaders are far too easy on ourselves. Ed has behavior problems we have failed to deal with. Ed cares nothing about organizational sanctions because he has no investment in the organization or personal relationship with its leadership. We failed Ed more than he failed us. After all, didn’t we hire Ed?
As leaders and managers, we need to spend time developing personal relationships with our people. Further, we need to seek opportunities to get them invested in the organization. Without these two elements, traditional disciplinary interventions are meaningless. If Ed felt he let Bill down, he would experience some angst regarding his behavior. If Ed and Bill had a relationship, Bill could have leveraged it to give an old-fashioned butt chewing that would have had more impact than 100 reprimands. We have become timid leaders who have lost the ability to actually engage in disciplinary dialogue. If Ed felt he was not holding up his end of an organization he was attached to, he would be remorseful about his conduct.
If you have a problem employee, engage him or her. Following progressive discipline to its inevitable abyss, while easy (and the HR department will love you), is not leadership. Leaders affect positive behavioral change to retain problem employees and rehabilitate them.