Taking disciplinary action? Don’t take the soft option

If you think that to bring empathy to your disciplinary process is to take the soft option, I want to show just how badly a lack of empathy can get you into trouble and invite you to bring both empathy and compassion when you exercise discipline – for yourself and for those you lead.

Is your heart sinking at the prospect of addressing some employee misdemeanour or incompetence?

It’s a rare leader who looks forward to a conversation with an employee about something that’s gone wrong.

You know the kind of thing.  Rules broken.  Poor performance.  Inappropriate behaviour.  Bad BO.  The list is long.

You know that something isn’t quite working.  You’ve taken time to monitor and observe.  Maybe you’ve asked others for the feedback – or received it whether you wanted to or not.

You’re concerned about the impact of your employee’s failings.  You can see the impact on the team, on your clients, maybe even on the reputation of your organisation.

Your heart is sinking.  You know it’s your job to have the conversation and you wish it weren’t.

When leaders get into a mess in taking disciplinary action

If you talk to the HR professionals in many organisations about times when things have gone wrong when it comes to exercising discipline – oh my!  They’ll roll their eyes!

They’ll tell you about the time they spent providing emotional support both to employees and to their managers.  Tea and tissues?  It may not be what they want to do and still, getting it wrong can leave everyone involved feeling emotionally exhausted and yearning for understanding.

They’ll tell you about the impact on employee morale.  Yes, there’s the morale of the two people most closely involved.  More than this, the impact of a poorly handled disciplinary process is rarely confined to the employee and his or her manager.  Team members provide emotional support.  Perhaps they get angry or upset or anxious for their own jobs.  The conversation that was designed to designed to address a particular issue stimulates all sorts of emotions for everyone involved.

Maybe the issue managers set out to address goes unresolved.  At best, the action taken just wasn’t effective.  At worst, it was so badly off kilter that the lawyers need to be brought in as well as HR to sort out the mess.  All this takes time and attention away from the broken rule, the poor performance, the inappropriate behaviour, the bad BO.   What’s more, you have a whole new set of issues to address.

What is it that goes so badly wrong?

Usually, colleagues in the HR department will point to just two things:

Firstly, they’ll tell you how they tried to give advice to the person concerned and how it wasn’t followed.  Often the advice is about an organisation’s disciplinary process.  If it’s well-designed it will help line managers both to meet legal requirements and to ensure that an employee feels that he or she has been handled fairly and even given support.

They may not say it, but behind the good advice about process there is often a second issue lurking undetected.  The issue?  A lack of empathy.

Creating a rehabilitation culture in our criminal institutions

Did I say criminal?  Yes, I did.

A few years ago, I was deeply touched when Dominic Barter told a story of some restorative justice work he had done in Brazil.  A baker, whose son had been shot and killed in the bakery, was so moved when he learnt of the killer’s experience of poverty and his intention only to steal a loaf of bread that he gave the killer a job as a way of making something good from the original crime.  This was possible because the baker was able to transcend his grief at the loss of his son and bring deep empathy and understanding for the man who had killed him.

More recently, the RSA advertised a talk by leading criminologist Professor Shadd Maruna entitled Creating a Rehabilitation Culture.  This is what they said about the talk on their website:

Numerous criminal justice observers have argued that offender rehabilitation does not come in a ‘programme’.

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

In case you haven’t made the link yet, this is what – too often – goes wrong when leaders seek to address issues in the workplace.  A lack of empathy, coupled with labelling the very person from whom a leader wants change, sets the leader up for the hardest possible ride.  The downward spiral has begun.

Finding a place of empathy when taking disciplinary action

If you’re facing the prospect of holding a disciplinary conversation with a member of your staff, finding a place of empathy for him or her is an important part of your preparation.  So is finding a place of empathy for yourself.  Here two things you can do to get you started:

Firstly, take time to find a place of empathy for yourself.  Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed.  Take a few moments to notice the thoughts and emotions you have when you think about this person and what they have done and without censoring yourself.  Pay particular attention to your emotions and get curious about what sits behind your feelings.  As a leader, you are best placed to handle a disciplinary conversation well when you are open to and accept the challenges this brings you and give time and space for your needs.

Take time, too, to find a place of empathy for the person with whom you need to talk.  Take a few moments to get curious.  What positive intentions does he or she bring, even when doing the things that aren’t working for you?  What hopes might he or she have for a conversation with you – whether or not s/he’s done something “wrong”?  (Some people ask themselves how they would like someone they love to be treated as a way of putting themselves in the shoes of their direct report).

Discipline yes – but not crime and punishment

Although targeted treatment interventions can be helpful in promoting desistance from crime, these projects are too often undermined by an overarching punitive culture that stigmatises and labels the individuals that programmes are meant to be ‘correcting’.

Targeted at the UK’s criminal justice system, I find these words from the RSA’s programme have a broader application.  How many of us are drawn to think ill of the person with whom we need to hold a disciplinary conversation – to stigmatise or label them?  And where else does this attitude show up in our life – with our spouse, perhaps, parents, children…  I’d like to say that it’s easy to avoid this place of judgement towards self or others and yet, in our culture, it isn’t.  It’s so easy to protect ourselves by putting others in the wrong.

It’s easy to start in this place of judgement and yet, it does not create ease.  Our judgement – of self and others – stimulates a great deal of resistance and this, in turn, creates conflict.  With empathy, we can put our concerns on the table freely and openly whilst building or maintaining our relationship with those we lead.  We can insist on certain standards in the workplace without putting people in the wrong.

Equally, with empathy, we can forgive ourselves – or each other – when our initial disciplinary conversation does not go according to plan.  And when we ask ourselves “where do I go from here?” empathy can help us to find a way forward which maximises the positive outcomes for everyone – yes, everyone – involved.

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