How to Make People Behave: 6 Levels of Disciplinary Action

In 4 Top Posts on Discipline in Software Development I told you about some disciplinary problems I was facing and the articles that I found on that topic. Unfortunately, my research has not yet revealed what the different options are for improving discipline in an organization.

So here's my own attempt at creating some order. I hope will find it useful.

dis⋅ci⋅pline [dis-uh-plin]

[…] behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control. […]

In Team Members, Be Predictable! I wrote that we must enforce discipline in an organization to make people's behavior more predictable. Otherwise the system becomes chaotic.

But who should take care of people's discipline? And how?

For example: what if Sebastiaan doesn't reply to his colleagues' email messages?

The Self
Self-discipline refers to the training that one gives one's self to adopt a particular pattern of behavior. Nobody needs to tell me that I should answer other people's emails within a reasonable amount of time. That is part of the behavior I have adopted myself.

The Coach
Coaching is the method of training a person, with the aim to develop specific skills and behavior. A coach might be able to help Sebastiaan in establishing proper email usage patterns, making sure that he doesn't leave other people's emails unattended.

The Peers
Peer pressure refers to the influence exerted by a peer group in encouraging a person to change his behavior in order to conform to the rules of the group. When Sebastiaan doesn't answer his peer's emails within an amount of time deemed appropriate by them, they are sure to remind him. Gently at first, possibly more forceful later.

The Signals
Signs and signals are a way to influence people's behavior by making sure they know what they should do in specific situations. You could imagine an email system to signal Sebastiaan when an email in his inbox was left unhandled for a certain amount of time.

The Supervisor
Supervising is the act of giving instructions and/or orders to people. A supervisor is someone who makes sure that people do their jobs properly, on behalf of an organization's management. This might include checking regularly that Sebastiaan has handled all his emails properly and timely.

The Manager
Managing is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals. Many people think that managers should not micro-manage their employees. This often translates to managers acting only when things go wrong. Like reprimanding Sebastiaan when he hasn't answered someone's email.

So you see, enforcing discipline in an organization is a concern possibly spanning six levels, where each level is supposed to be a fall-back scenario in case the one before it fails. Discipline is, in the first place, a personal responsibility. And when people haven't learned disciplined behavior they need to be coached into it. If that coach happens to be unavailable, incompetent, or dead, the enforcement of discipline can be done by someone's peers. But when those peers are just as undisciplined in their behavior, it may all fall down to proper signs and signals, and a supervisor to have things run smoothly. Finally, when the signs don't work, and the supervisor is unavailable, incompetent, or dead, the manager is the one who (rightfully) gets all the blame for the chaos that unfolds when people are not following any rules.

And most managers don't like that!

As a manager, to prevent chaos from becoming the norm, and all disciplinary problems arriving at your desk, you can set up the following six-level disciplinary system:

  1. Strive to make self-discipline part of your organization's culture. You cannot chance a culture unless you change yourself, and it's important to lead by example. This means that, as a manager, you have to start by showing people you have a significant amount of self-discipline yourself.
  2. Appoint a personal coach for every employee. This can be the people's own functional managers, who need to be taught how to act in a coaching role towards their employees. But you can also appoint some other personal coaches.
  3. Make sure that peer pressure is common and acceptable in your organization's culture. This includes teaching people how to give feedback to their peers about their behavior (positive vs. negative feedback).
  4. Have signs and signals introduced in the organization. This means that all systems must be set up in such a way that they make it easier for people to practice desired behavior.
  5. Appoint a supervisor for some parts of the organization. Note that her job is only to supervise intended behavior that fails to emerge despite the 4 disciplinary levels that precede her. In the best of circumstances, there should be no need of a supervisor at all! But nobody's perfect, and no organization is either.
  6. You, as a manager, will always be needed. If only to make sure that the previous levels remain in tact.

(You can find the six levels of disciplinary action in many other social systems. Take road traffic management, for example. Self-discipline is needed to make car drivers follow the rules as they have been explained by their instructors, who have acted as their coaches. Once a driver's license is obtained, and the instructors are out of the picture, car drivers use their car horns, and sometimes certain fingers, to communicate with each other on the road. And we can refer to that as peer pressure. Road signs and signals are obviously needed to improve people's behavior. And traffic police, as supervisors, take matters in their own hands when all other methods turn out to be insufficient. And last but not least, the government, as the road traffic manager, makes sure that all other levels are working properly. And to pass judgment when everything else failed and things got messy.)

Those are, what I'd like to call, the six levels of disciplinary action, where the first level is where it should all begin, and each consecutive level exists as a fall-back scenario for the previous ones.

(picture by Paul Keleher)

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