Strategic Leadership Discipline

When leaders start by taking personal control of their approach to discipline and responsibility, they're more able to kickstart and sustain superior results.

Like most Safety leaders, I'm a strong proponent for "personal responsibility." And to me this is more than just a philosophy of what people "should" do; it's a matter of reality. Responsibility exemplifies the Third Law of Motion, "for every action, there's an opposite and equal reaction." In other words, what I decide or do or don't do generates repercussions that will in some ways affect me and those around me. If I purposely mislead others? They'll then see and think differently of me, diminishing trust, perhaps encouraging a cover-their-rears mindset. Don't direct attention to current risks around me? At the very least, my default peace of mind will erode. And it's more likely I'll eventually pay a physical price. Or model a complacent tone for others. Habitually arrive late to meetings? Others will believe I'm transmitting the message that I don't believe these are important—and likely they'll only participate half-heartedly during discussions or begin to come late themselves. While it's impossible to predict exactly what will transpire, there will be, even if delayed, some "rebounding" from positive and negative actions.

There's no question in my mind that "discipline" is closely tied to personal responsibility. Unfortunately, I've seen how both these well-bandied-about terms and approaches have become curdled with misuse among several companies and their leaders. But this doesn't have to be so. When leaders start by taking personal control of their approach to discipline and responsibility, they're more able to kickstart and sustain superior results. I'm reminded of Wing Chun master Chow Hung-Yuen's teaching, "How can you direct forces and others around you if you can't even control yourself?"

Given that, I believe there are four critical keys to applying discipline and personal responsibility for leading toward high-level Safety performance and culture.

1. Shared responsibility. Each of us—from Executives to managers to professionals to supervisors to line staff—is responsible for what we do and don't do. So everyone on all levels of an organization has his or her part in promoting, elevating, and sustaining safety performance and culture—not just line workers. Senior managers have to value safety and continually broadcast these messages as consistently as possible. They have to allocate sufficient resources to "make it so" when it comes to high-level Safety performance. And screen in and make it easy to bring in resources as needed (from safety equipment to training and more) that further the Safety mission. They have to hold their direct and indirect reports—managers through supervisors—responsible for getting work done as safely as at all possible. And workers have to do their utmost to keep an open mind about the intent of managers. To try on new and existing safety methods and equipment. To practice mental and physical safety skills that might benefit them. To encourage safe decision-making and actions with co-workers and family members.

And, very important, send clear and consistent messages that there is a difference between self-discipline (self) vs. being "correctively disciplined." And that the former is by far more preferable. To make this easier for people to differentiate, we prefer "taking personal control" to "self-discipline." (It's the same idea but without the potential confusion or connotations.)

2. Reduce finger pointing. Calling out "Personal responsibility" is too often equated with threatening to or actually initiating a disciplinary process. "Discipline" implies learning (as in "disciple," as one who follows/learns/develops/improves). But a mistake is that too many would-be leaders associate "discipline" with "punishment." When the response to an ineffective or unsafe action morphs into embarrassing or punishing the worker, I've found the potential for learning and improvement diminishes—with a corresponding increase in worker resentment and/or "cover your rear while there's a chance of being caught." People are then less likely to report hazards, near misses, or "minor" incidents that they can hide. And in a time where many employees are either working with minimal or absent direct supervision (e.g., remote workers), a punishment-first approach—where so many daily actions aren’t actually seen—is often laughed off or backfires.

3. Catch and communicate clearly—as early as possible—before it builds to a breaking point. "Dscipline" (as in immediately prescribing negative consequences for an action) should never come as a surprise. People who punish "bad" behaviors often do so out of their own frustrations, or from a desire to punish and control others, or because they don't know alternatives (and likely have had weak leadership role models themselves). Almost all "progressive discipline" systems I've seen counsel taking gradually stricter actions to assist a worker to change their behavior (to act safer)—and give them reasonable time to adopt these preferred actions into their work lives. Yet too many supervisors who are either untrained or undisciplined themselves (don't know what else to do or emotionally lash out) leap to the last stage of punishment, lead-footedly stomping on the punishment accelerator from zero to sixty.

4. Leaders have to first "discipline"/take personal control of themselves. This is most important and entails committing to self-honesty—leaders embracing dispassionately assessing their own current strengths and limitations, staying open to receiving unsolicited feedback, actively soliciting honest responses regarding the effectiveness of their plans and actions, committing to voraciously learning from every situation and everyone. Carving out the time and putting in the energy to take care of their mental and physical well-being. And, very important, being willing and able to laugh at themselves.

Bottom line? In my experience, highest-level Safety performance cultures emphasize learning and improvement over punishment.

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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