Effective Leadership and Progressive Discipline

By Dan Hamon

Workshop is available for this topic: This program can be given live or remote in either Spanish or English.

To listen to and see slides on an Open Line web conference on this topic with Dan Hamon as the guest speaker, please go here:
Audio: https://zb0dc3.a2cdn1.secureserver.net/openline/041918/OpenLine041918.mp3
Slides: https://zb0dc3.a2cdn1.secureserver.net/openline/041918/OpenLine041918.pdf

Peter Drucker, the noted management professor and author famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

One of the right things a leader must do is to practice progressive discipline. As someone who leads seminars for both English and Spanish speaking managers and employees on the importance of effective leadership and progressive discipline, I would like to set the record straight on this important leadership practice.

Yes, there are important legal reasons.

“The first question in any legal challenge is, ‘Did the manager manage properly?’” says Mike Deblieux, author of seven people management books. “Effective documentation shows the manager managed performance by setting clear expectations, monitoring performance, providing feedback, and redirecting performance by creating an opportunity for the employee to succeed.”

As the saying goes about documentation, the proof is there in black and white.

What is not always black and white is how progressive discipline is effective leadership. In other words, progressive discipline produces results.

Now I am no human relations theorist. I have played key leadership roles in product development, marketing, sales, and worldwide operations, and P&L. When I was 19 I assumed responsibility for my family’s manufacturing and retail business. So, this is real world effective leadership I want us to consider, not some academic view.

But to be fair, let’s start with the academic textbook definition of progressive discipline: An employee disciplinary system that provides a graduated range of responses to employee performance or conduct problems. Disciplinary measures range from mild to severe, from a slap on the wrist up to and including termination, depending on the nature and frequency of the problem.

There is a management adage that the best defense is a good offense: Using progressive discipline proactively is the best strategy to minimize the threat of litigation from wrongful termination cases. Some have nicknamed it the “three strikes and you are out” discipline system. While the baseball metaphor is handy to remember, there is no magic in three offenses equals termination. And termination is not really the goal; the goal is better performance.

Many leaders worry that writing up employees will hurt performance and cause workers to form a dislike of leadership. They reason that employees who dislike management will be less engaged.

This is miscalculated thinking about the attributes of leadership, morale, and being liked by employees.

Another favorite Drucker quote of mine is: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked: leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”

Most leaders would agree that management is about achieving results through people. A manager must help his or her people succeed at the work they do, and regardless of what language they speak. A key to helping people succeed is communication, which is probably the most important thing a manager does. Managers need to identify and correct performance problems through proper communications (with a sensitivity to the language his or her workforce is most comfortable with).

As commonly believed, it is true with progressive discipline leaders use communications to protect themselves and their organization against legal action by getting incidents on paper. But there is more. These managers take steps to ensure solid, consistent documentation procedures throughout the entire organization. Most important, you will also identify and address potential performance problems with progressive discipline before they even happen. Preventing an illness is more important than curing an illness.

Prevention through coaching performance improvement begins with observing and communicating employee behavior. This means communicating in writing that follows Deblieux’s FOSA framework: facts, objectives, solutions, and actions. Managers, don’t just tell what you want when facts will sell what you want.

Managers must be objective and not subjective in writing down what is going on. Subjective means your opinion, and objective means what can be seen. Behavior that can be seen should be factually described by recording the what, when, where, who and how (also part of the FOSA framework):

•  What happened
•  When it happened
•  Where it happened
•  Who was involved
•  How it happened

Describe direct observations of behavior in your written evaluations. Deblieux’s work tells us to use phrases like “I saw,” “I heard,” “I touched,” “I smelled,” and “I tasted.” Remember you are describing objective behaviors, not your subjective feelings about the employees’ attitude or demeanor. When translated into another language, these objective statements are clear to understand.

So, to be understood a manager should not write something vague like “You were late today.” Instead, a better entry would be: “I saw you arrive at your workstation and clock-in at 7:42 a.m., which is 12 minutes past starting time.”

As another example, a manager should not write something like, “Don’t forget to wear your hard hat, protective eye glasses, and steel toe shoes next time.”

Instead, a better entry for this would read: “The company safety rules require you to wear a hard hat, protective eye glasses, and steel toe shoes at all times on the company yard. I expect you to put your hard hat, protective eye glasses, and steel toe shoes on before you enter the company yard.”

These entries document behaviors that are expected. Discipline is the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior. Therefore, training comes first, and counseling comes second. There is even room for the oral warning, and no need to be a stringent supervisor that starts with a written warning. Think training first, not punishment, to correct disobedience.

One way to improve manager/employee communications is through in-depth work style and personality assessment testing. Managers should learn how their people and job candidates are wired in order to hire the best and understand how to proactively manage individuals.

This type of testing can identify potential red flags for human behavioral issues during the hiring process. Another benefit is it helps managers gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of staff and candidates. Perhaps most important, it can reduce the learning curve for understanding how to manage individuals for greater work performance.

The key concept to remember there is workers are individuals, and there is no “one size fits all” communication strategy for obtaining optimum performance. I believe nobody comes to work to make mistakes. Let’s think of mistakes as a chance to teach, to help the employee learn from his or her error.

Better communications will help the employees be more open to the learning. Managers can benefit from training in interpersonal coaching, especially through the use of the work style and personality assessments. As managers, sometimes we need to take a good long look in the mirror about our coaching skills.

However, when there is disobedience or on-going failure to achieve performance goals, then there needs to be an escalation. This includes written warnings. This can be followed by a last step option. This is a specific warning of termination. The final step is termination. While a termination may be a layoff, here we are really talking about firing someone for willful violation of rules or the inability to perform.

For an employee to willfully violate rules, they have to know what the rules are. Effective leaders need to identify the rules, explain the application of the rules, be aware of the exceptions and document the coaching process through progressive discipline.

To listen to and see slides on an Open Line web conference on this topic with Dan Hamon as the guest speaker, please go here:
Audio: https://zb0dc3.a2cdn1.secureserver.net/openline/041918/OpenLine041918.mp3
Slides: https://zb0dc3.a2cdn1.secureserver.net/openline/041918/OpenLine041918.pdf

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2020

Dan Hamon is a Senior Consultant with Lighthouse Consulting Services. Dan has played key leadership roles in product development, marketing, sales, worldwide operations, and P&L. He is particularly gifted at drawing together and leading the right internal and external teams for solving complex problems and achieving business results. Dan’s industry expertise includes software, semiconductors, micro-machines, high performance computing, cyber-security, and artificial intelligence. Dan enjoys giving presentations on management, technology, productivity and other interesting topics to managers and senior executives.

If you would like additional information on this topic or others, please contact your Human Resources department or Lighthouse Consulting Services LLC, Santa Monica, CA, (310) 453-6556, dana@lighthouseconsulting.com & our website: www.lighthouseconsulting.com.

Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication and stress management.

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