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The discipline decision: How to manage employees’ mistakes, failures, and poor performance

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March 12, 2024
By Bill Howatt

Photo: Getty Images

Workplaces that want to become psychologically safe and inclusive will benefit from ensuring HR educates its leaders on making discipline decisions effectively. Discipline does not have to be perceived as a negative. It can be a positive learning opportunity and approach to reinforce accountability and performance expectations.

Many employees who receive punitive discipline focus more on their experience and feelings than the desired outcome. Discipline can be an effective tactic for HR or leadership to manage mistakes, failure, and poor performance. A breach of policy, procedure, or an organization’s core values is the trigger that drives a disciplinary decision.

What is discipline, and how is it supposed to work?

Some leaders may not clearly understand why or how discipline should work. They are often told a standard breach must result in discipline, and the focus is on discipline versus the desired outcome of a behaviour change. Most human behaviour is motivated by the stick or carrot.

Workplace leaders who use discipline typically do so to inform workers that what they are doing is unacceptable or below a desired standard. The rationale is to correct the behaviour, hoping it will lead to a desired behavioural change. The value-based objective when issuing discipline is not to create mental harm. It is to motivate the worker to change their behaviour.


Many leaders are unaware of the behavioural science approach to discipline. They assume pain is a motivator to stop unwanted behaviour.

The behavioural theory of classic and operant conditioning is the foundation of most incentive and discipline programs. This theory promotes reinforcement as a response or consequence to behaviour. For example, workplace reinforcement of positive behaviour often happens when a person is rewarded for favourable behaviour (e.g., given a bonus for hitting performance targets) and is then given an incentive to reinforce future behaviour.

Workplace discipline often happens when a worker engages in unfavourable behaviour; negative stimulus (discipline) is used to discourage it from happening again. The classic reinforcement options for discipline are taking something away or adding something to deter the behaviour from happening again.

Why mindless discipline often fails

In the zeitgeist workplace history of issuing discipline, most workers perceive it as punishment with little consideration for learning. It can be humiliating for workers when they hear their HR and leaders judging them as persons when issuing discipline, with little to no focus on the behaviour. Discipline can be confusing and feel inhumane. For example, something like being late for work resulting in an automatic written coaching warning letter being put on an employee’s file without a conversation.

Discipline without empathy or appreciation of an employee’s situation can erode morale and trust in leadership. When discipline is a stick that drives fear and compliance, most employees view it as a punitive bureaucratic process focused on hurting them with little regard for learning, accountability, or behavioural change.

Fear is a terrible way to live. Some leaders motivated to create fear confuse compliance with competency and the risk of discipline to generate profound resentment toward their leaders. Perceived unjust discipline can cause employees to seek revenge and increase stubbornness and defensiveness.

Discipline often fails to be effective because there is no focus on the person, only the outcome. Factors that can negatively influence an employee’s performance potential include their mental state (e.g., tired, distracted by a life stressor), work experiences regarding psychological safety and inclusion (e.g., fear, feeling isolated, language barrier), and core competency (e.g., lack of skills to cope under pressure). Discipline fails when its purpose is punishing employees rather than facilitating desired behaviour.

Six-step approach for managing discipline

The following model requires leaders to be calm and not engage with employees acting out or reacting emotionally. Calm minds are necessary to learn from mistakes. The goal is competency, accountability, and learning, not compliance and control. Employees may fail to be successful, which is OK, provided the expectations for success are clear and the focus is on learning, not creating fear, punishment, or shame.

Observe less-desirable behaviour — Behaviours can range from not optimal to creating risk. Identify and focus on the below-standard behaviour, not the person. Once the behaviour is named, get context.

Situational awareness — Ensure the person is aware of what they are doing. For example, when a police officer pulls a person over, they typically ask if they know how fast they were going. Once it is clear that the employee is aware of the misbehaviour, be sure they understand how the behaviour is not at standard. Facilitate this through open-ended questions instead of making statements.

Understand the person’s circumstances — People are not perfect and sometimes are at risk of making uncharacteristic mistakes based on their circumstances (e.g., fatigue). A worker’s intention may have been to do something good for their organization by pushing themselves, which impaired their concentration and judgment. For example, a production worker trying to make a quote pushes hard for 10 hours and makes a cognitive mistake by taking a shortcut that breaches a safety standard. As much as we like to think humans are machines, they are not; they have limits. The aim of this step is to have empathy and put yourself in the worker’s shoes to understand their context and experience. This is not about accepting excuses; it is about understanding.

Emphasize the correction and desired behaviour — Ask if the worker understands the required correction and can correct the behaviour. Never assume. Telling a person to jump higher does not mean they can. This information can help determine if there is a competency gap to be closed.

Explore a positive reinforcement option when possible — Every worker must be treated fairly and reasonably for discipline to have the desired outcome of changing behaviour. Discipline does not need to be painful and does not always require a formal process. An informal process emphasizing accountability, clarifying expectations, and learning may be sufficient. Often, a coaching approach can ensure a point is made positively and without fear to create a desired behaviour change. This approach focuses on a person’s behaviour, holding them accountable, and allowing them to learn from the mistake without a negative consequence. It takes energy as it focuses on knowledge and skills and checking if there is a gap to provide an opportunity to learn. This approach can set clear expectations for the desired behaviour and anchors the why, what, and how to proceed. It normalizes that mistakes happen, but not all are OK. Continuing to make sloppy mistakes is not a knowledge or skills issue. It often is due to a lack of valuing or caring about a standard. Using this coaching approach would not be appropriate when dealing with issues like workplace violence that require formal documentation. When a worker dismisses the coaching approach and displays a negative attitude and lack of respect for others (e.g., repeats the infraction the day after a positive reinforcement coaching conversation without taking accountability), the next step is to move to negative reinforcement.

Focus on behaviour, not the person, when issuing negative reinforcement — Instead of judging workplace behaviour as good or bad, consider it as moving towards or away from the organization’s values or performance expectations. This step is appropriate when the above step is not working or the incident requires formal documentation because of the seriousness of the infraction. However, when a worker is clear about the expectations, has the knowledge and skills, has been coached, and continues to breach a policy, proceed to negative reinforcement to signal they have a choice to change or expect more consequences. Keep emotions out of the equation when using negative reinforcement and focus on the behaviour. Be clear on the rationale for the consequence and the goal. Make the consequences clear the person may face if change does not happen following this discipline. It can be beneficial for leaders issuing discipline to measure twice and cut once. Discuss the situation with a trusted peer or HR, consider the discipline approach, and plan to support behaviour change. Ensure the discipline issued is reasonable and aligns proportionally with the magnitude of the breach. Set the expectation that any employee in this situation would receive the same discipline to ensure there is no bias and the person is treated fairly and with dignity. Discipline has a purpose. Never lose its purpose to encourage desirable behaviour.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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