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Is Employee Discipline Still Important?

December 18, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Performance Management

Is Employee Discipline Still Important?

In this modern world of flexible working, smaller teams, self-direction and greater empowerment (to name just a few of the newer workplace trends) we tend to hear less about the need for employee discipline and it’s tempting to think that is less important than it once was-is this really the case?

While the word “discipline” can have a harsh connotation (of performance going wrong), we should take a positive approach to it. Rather than to regard it to be all about restriction and punishment, the actual definition of discipline paints quite a different picture. “Discipline is systematic instruction intended to train a person, sometimes literally called a disciple, in a task or activity, or a process to encourage an individual to follow a particular code of conduct or a set pattern or order of behavior.”

So, discipline is about teaching by instruction and practice (something the military believes in very strongly for example). It is also about a clear set of rules and methods of operating or behaving. Discipline is also a system of self-control for individuals. Finally, it can also be said that discipline is about creating helpful levels of order-not only for one person but often for an entire organization (so that people know where they are and what constitutes positive behavior or action on a consistent basis.

Given the above, discipline is not so much a tool of last resort (when performance has slipped dramatically and we need to take “disciplinary action” (verbal and written warnings etc.) but a tool of first resort. That is, good discipline can assist us in helping people to perform at the best level they can, thereby fulfilling management’s responsibility to “get the best out of people”.  Consequently, if someone’s performance has slipped and counseling attempts haven’t restored it to acceptable levels, then it is a manager’s responsibility – to the individual and to the organization – to provide the necessary instruction and direction to restore performance as soon as possible.

We should also remember that the word “discipline” intrinsically includes providing ongoing training and development to improve performance. And of course, “self-discipline” is vital to maintaining performance.

In the context of the above, one of the first steps in looking to address any kind of perceived performance shortfall in the performance of another person is to offer feedback, or what is often called “constructive criticism” (or criticism that is for the medium to long-term benefit of the individual).

Offering constructive criticism seems like a simple, obvious and straightforward thing to do. So, why does it seem to be so hard to do and why do we hesitate to give constructive criticism? Amongst the many reasons here are things like hurting the person’s feelings, a manager fearing being disliked, worrying about demotivating the person, risking damaging a good working relationship, causing a person to get angry or defensive, being perceived as too harsh or mean, causing performance to get worse, being seen as unnecessarily exerting authority etc.

Despite the above, research suggests that most people say they actually want clear and direct feedback about their performance , In addition, if there’s a problem  they want to know about it at the earliest possible opportunity and not have it ignored (or brought up month’s later in a six monthly or annual performance review). So the key step to maintain order and discipline is to offer regular and constructive feedback as often as necessary.

There are five key steps to offering constructive criticism:

  • Make sure you are well prepared so that you can calmly, clearly, simply and succinctly describe what the performance issue or problem is.
  • Listen as the individual outlines their reasons or explanations for the performance shortfall.
  • Explain clearly why and how their performance is creating a problem (for them, for you, for clients, for colleagues, for the organization).
  • Suggest constructive ways in which the individual can improve (with any help he/she may need).
  • It’s also important to end positively – not patronizingly, but supportively. We tend to most clearly remember the first and last parts of exchanges with people, so our opening statement and concluding expressions are very important.

To have this sort of discussion, of course, we need to think sensibly about the environment in which we have this discussion and about the manner we adopt in communicating. However, the most important need is to have the discussion and not put it off.

So to answer the question we asked at the top of this article – is employee discipline still important? Well, the answer is very much so, but we should start thinking about it as a positive tool to steer people in the right direction well before performance has deteriorated to become a major problem.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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