What Businesses Should Learn from the Military – Part VII, Discipline

michael-saldanaDiscipline

I’m laughing as I write this. I know you can’t make your employees run around the building for three hours because they were late like we did at Camp Pendleton. I know that filling sandbags isn’t really an option, but discipline is a lost artform that I wish was still existent in the real world. And I know that all you are thinking right now is about some drill instructor yelling at Marine recruits. Some think that is barbaric, others take joy in the idea of it. Well, that is a little bit of what I am talking about, but you need to understand why. It may be the hardest thing for you to accept on this list, but you need to consider this… There is a reason that “Discipline” falls under “Training” and there is a reason that it is the largest section of my list. It is the most important. Second, you followed this question for a reason. Think about that. You knew there was something the military does that you want to learn. Everyone knows that the number one thing in the military is discipline. You need to be strong enough to make it the number one thing in your organization, too. Perhaps, though, you need to understand why.

To begin, I’d like to tell you about a time in the Marines when I once yelled at a PFC for half an hour because he told me, “Hang on a sec.” Exact quote, no exaggeration. I mean screaming at his face, for a solid 30 minutes. That may sound extreme, it is, but there is a reason for it. What most people reading this don’t understand, is that yelling was the nice option compared to some punishments I was entitled to give.

Here is the deal, and it is so important that I am going to break my all caps rule so that you understand it clearly. DISCIPLINING YOUR EMPLOYEES SAVES THEIR JOBS! That is the intention of discipline. To save people from much worse punishments down the road. To make it clear, did you know that for that Marine who told me to hang on, I could have filed a Page 11 entry? A page 11 is a formal reprimand that will stay in his permanent record jacket that will follow him for the rest of his Marine Corps career. He will be labeled from the moment he moves to any command from that day on. Was it worth damaging his career? No, that would be an insane jerk move on my part. Anyone would agree that it wasn’t worth perminant concequence, but for reasons you might not understand, he had committed a serious infraction, disrespect and insubordination of a non-commissioned officer. Instead, I yelled. It left no permanent mark on his record jacket, but left a lasting impression. I didn’t have to have that talk a second time.
Maybe another example that is more applicable to the civilian world would be better. You can see how my mentality stayed the same, even though my actions had to change. I once managed a store right after college. I was young, but I had my experience from the Marines. One of the employees was late. It wasn’t his first time. He was a senior employee, but had had a lot of problems lately. I chewed him out and he became belligerent and started yelling back at me in front of the other employees. I sent him to the back office. There I filed our store’s standard write up form that is part of the firing process. I wasn’t firing him. I was starting down that road. It’s an early step, but the process is beginning. Compare it to a “three strikes rule”. I had him sign it after I asked if he knew what it was. He did. I asked him if he understood why he was signing it.

“Because I was late.” he said.

“No,” I replied in a calm voice, “I yelled at you because you were late. You didn’t accept that form of punishment. Instead you talked back and made a scene in front of the other associates. You didn’t allow me to protect you from this for being late. Instead, you followed one bad choice with a worse one and you forced me to do this so that the discipline and morale of this store doesn’t become damaged by you. This is the first step I have to ensure that you don’t work here and become a poison to the team with your declining attitude. As much as I would like to, for your sake, I don’t intend to yell at you anymore. Do you understand?”

He did. I didn’t want to do that, to put him on that track, but the message made its way through the store. He was never the model employee, but he didn’t give me problems anymore.

How does this apply to you? As I mentioned, discipline saves jobs. You apply painful punishments as a means to avoid official ones. A lot of managers I knew, in fact most, were basically always creating a list in their heads, or literal ones of their employees’ mistakes and, “building cases” for their dismissal, even if they had no intention of firing them. It was just the only method they knew of how to improve their work. “Well, Smith, you know you weren’t doing a good job. So you are one step closer to being fired. I still love you though. Have a great day!” That’s ridiculous. I would rather be yelled at than told that by someone smiling with flowers and candy.

So how do you discipline your employees? You have to discover that one for yourself. I can’t tell you that (legally, nor do I want to). You have to talk with your managers and other leaders to discuss a set of discipline norms of acceptable behaviors for your leaders that fits with your company’s values and culture. I’m not asking you to scream and yell, or to beat someone to death with hammers for every infraction. What I am telling you to do is something that conveys disappointment and reestablishes expectations in a way that doesn’t put them on the track to dismissal. One example might be assigning extra duties or assigning them to the crap assignments no one wants. (It’s also a great insensitive for the good employees to get to skip those crap tasks that someone has to do.) It sends a message, but the employee isn’t in danger of being fired.

Bring in HR and even Legal. Good ideas can have very negative unintended consequences. Another story I will share is of an employee I had who wasn’t shaping up. She was pretty and well liked, but from my point of view, as her direct supervisor, she was spoiled and used to getting her way. She managed to figure out how to not come to work about 30% of the time she was being paid for. She would say things like she had an appointment tomorrow, or whatnot, once, then twice a week. I had no idea what these appointments were. She have a cold? Cancer? Getting her hair done? When she wasn’t there, I had to cover her job. It was obvious she was abusing a friendly employee perk to help employees when they needed it. This was unproductive and made the office run poorly.  It got to be too much. I was still young so I didn’t quite know the best way to handle it. I asked if these appointments were health related and told her that she didn’t need to make all these appointments during business hours and needed to focus on her work. A good HR person will see my mistake. I had the nerve to ask what these appointments were for. That’s a violation of privacy and I got in hot water. Worse she found a way to manipulate the system and knew she had me. That relationship ended toxically and there are many things I would do differently if given a second chance. Safe to say, I had no discipline over her. I still insist I was doing the right thing, but good motives and bad execution will land you on the street as fast as downright abuse will.

So learn from my mistakes. Come up with plans to discipline that saves good employees from losing their jobs. It will echo throughout the company, and remind people of their responsibilities. It will also, if you’re doing it right, remind them that they are not expendable, and that this is your way of providing them training rather than showing them the door. Work with your managers and HR to determine a good system for your team. The order, structure and regularity it provides creates a feedback loop.
Blues


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