Discipline without Punishment

Discipline without Punishment

Classic models of organizational discipline policy damage work relationships and create a toxic work environment. And, I have yet to meet a leader who is stoked to be the disciplinarian for their team.

If you hate how discipline works (or, more likely, how it doesn’t work) at your organization, it’s time to take a look at your discipline policy and come up with something better.

Many organizations have what is called “progressive” discipline policy. In this case “progressive” means, “one little step at a time” and not “forward-looking” or “human-centered.”

In this model, if an employee violates a policy or generally does something that requires disciplining, they get a verbal warning, written warning, really serious written warning and punishments, then fired.

Verbally wagging your finger at someone followed up by shaking your fist at them in written form are counterproductive ways to build trust with fellow humans.

It’s as if making someone aware of their poor behavior choices in various modalities (verbal and written!) then punishing them in small or big ways will fix the problem before you have to fire them.

Does this seem at all like a process that creates strong work relationships that contribute to a thriving, emotionally safe culture?

Add to this the threat of punishment intended as a motivational tool for people to make better choices and you get….well, what we have now in many organizations - people who feel oppressed by their working conditions (and a lot of fodder for Foucault).

There are other ways of managing discipline and shaping behavior.

The best one I can think of involves creating a psychologically safe environment where people are expected to stumble at times as they learn surrounded by a culture of people who are bought-in and committed to emotionally intelligent responses to mistakes and growth.

It’s not a fairytale land. It’s possible.

There are well-established systems for managing discipline without punishment - restorative justice is the first that comes to mind. Some of you might be wagging your finger (or shaking your fist) at me right now saying that restorative justice deals with conflict and not discipline. My question for you is: aren’t the behaviors that require discipline actually behaviors that are in conflict with policy/procedure or behavior expectations (spoken or unspoken)?

Side note: restorative justice doesn’t mean anything is ok and we just hug it out and move on.

A system that actively supports justice and repairing relationships over threats and punishment will look and feel very different from the traditional model. People will be accountable and engaged in the best of the organizational culture. Punishments will not be laid out like a buffet. Positive behavior will be self-reinforcing. All people will be able to take positive culture-building actions when behavior goes awry.

It looks like people who feel a sense of ownership over the organizational culture.

How you get there depends on where you (and your people) are now.

Here’s an abbreviated process for when you’re ready to go big-time and make substantial cultural change within your organization:

1 - Read up on restorative justice practices and talk to people who have alternative organizational discipline models to collect ideas and possibilities.

2 - Look at all your organizational policies. Are they supportive of a psychologically safe culture? Do they rest on emotionally intelligent premises? If not, into the trash they go (or re-write them to be better aligned with a human-centered culture).

3 - I suspect that when you dig into your organizational discipline policy, you’ll find something punishment-based lurking around somewhere. Find it. Read it. Throw it in the trash.

4 - Start over by imagining how you would want to be treated if you were expected to learn from your mistakes and then create something beautiful that also has solid bottom-lines for behavior that is not at all ok. (Disclaimer: don’t run afoul of labor law.)

You can work in an organization where punishment is not used as a motivator and instead, people are invested in co-creating a thriving, forward-looking, human-centered organizational culture.

You might have to build it yourself - but you're not alone.

Let me know if you need help and support along the way. I’ve done this work before - it is worth doing.