Effective Rule Enforcement – Exploring Alternatives to Discipline

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

This article builds on an article from 2017 that provided four steps to effective rule enforcement. In that foundational article, I focused on the need for clear, well-communicated rules that are consistently enforced through the use of primarily positive, and in some cases, negative consequences. In this article, I will build on those concepts by exploring alternatives to formal, negative enforcement – what we commonly refer to as discipline.

LEARN MORE: Four Keys to Effective Rule Enforcement

What is the Difference Between Enforcement and Discipline?

People often treat discipline and enforcement as synonyms – they see the two terms as meaning the same thing. Such use tends to make people believe that enforcement is always negative. The dictionary definition of enforcement, however, has no negative tone to it at all. Enforcement merely means ‘ensuring that rules are followed.’

Unfortunately, too many of us have only seen negative forms of enforcement displayed in either our work lives or our home life. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ was an accepted adage back in the day. Some of the most renowned coaches in the sports world are known for their explosive, and assumedly effective, negative natures. Even our television bosses from the past are remembered for their angry nature. Do the names Slate, Mooney, Drysdale, or Tate sound familiar to any of you readers?

How Effective is Discipline as a Workplace Rule Enforcement Strategy?

Discipline seems effective because it is a tangible action that involves some level of negative consequence – punishment, if you will. Unfortunately, if people know they will be punished if they are caught breaking a rule, what do you think happens? People develop their own techniques to avoid getting caught, but they still most likely break certain rules. Problems get pushed underground as people hide errors that might get them in trouble. The act of discipline itself often damages relationships and reputations.

Poor performance, especially on the part of leaders, should not be tolerated. Taking action to address poor performance should however have a positive, coaching-oriented focus, if possible. All too often, poor performance is the result of poorly defined expectations, weak process-based measures, and the lack of daily, consistent, positive, and meaningful performance feedback and support. Discipline is not an effective rule enforcement strategy.

What are Your Rule Enforcement Preferences?

I created the Enforcement Matrix (shown above) to help leaders (1) better define their current enforcement approaches and (2) create a more effective plan for future rule enforcement at work. Using the Enforcement Matrix is easy. Begin by asking your leaders to place a percentage in each of the four quadrants, with the four percentages totaling 100%. Follow up this activity by discussing where areas of consistency and inconsistency exist across work groups and rule types. Finally, create an action plan to address the areas of inconsistency that exist.

WATCH MORE: Video clip of Kevin explaining the Rule Enforcement Matrix

High performance organizations place their lowest percentages in the formal and informal negative discipline quadrants. In many cases, informal discipline is used less often than formal discipline in such organizations. In both cases, I estimate that neither negative approach is used more than 5% of the time. The greatest focus is placed on informal, positive enforcement. These daily actions need to be consistent across leadership groups, and their use should be effectively supported by formal recognition systems.

DISCOVER MORE: Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity – the Essence of Innovation

What is Your Compelling ‘Why’ for Following the Rules?

When I coach front line leaders, I always like to ask them how they respond when someone asks them ‘Why do we have to follow this rule?’. As you might guess, undesirable answers to this question include “Because I told you to” and “I will get in trouble with my boss if you don’t.” Such responses might garner compliance when the supervisor is present, but they rarely ensure people consistently follow the rules.

I learned the concept of the ‘compelling why’ from Tony Robbins. Tony taught me that all too often we focus on ‘how’ we want to do something versus looking first at why we want to do it. At work, we tell people how we want them to act and perform at work, but we fail to first give them a ‘compelling why’ for doing what we are asking (or telling) them to do. Rarely are threats of punishment a form of a compelling why.

LEARN MORE: Tony Robbin’s ‘In Pursuit of Your Why’ podcast

When Might Formal Discipline be Warranted?

Formal discipline is warranted in some cases. Examples of such cases include fighting or using illegal substances on the job, falsifying company documents, and theft of company property. Some of my customers even have ‘life saving rules’, which if broken, will result in termination. Examples include talking on a cellphone in a company vehicle or not locking out equipment before working on it.

Discipline should be the ‘rarely used’ exception, not the rule, when it comes to effective rule enforcement. My experiences and benchmarking have convinced me that positive formal and informal enforcement strategies are much more effective. Most people follow the rules if they know why it is important to follow the rules and if they are given daily, consistent, positive, and meaningful feedback on their performance.

What Do Effective Rule Enforcement Strategies Look Like?

Informal positive enforcement works best if it is delivered in a daily, consistent, and meaningful manner (insert your ‘compelling why’ here). Formal positive enforcement serves as the second most effective means of rule enforcement if such recognition is fairly distributed (avoid ‘one winner’ systems at all costs), consistent, and timely (sooner versus later).

Formal recognition approaches should recognize anyone who achieves the desired levels of performance. Design an approach that incorporates all key performance areas, such as those where points are earned for achieving performance goals in different areas. Earned points can be exchanged for ‘company store’ items, gift cards, and even time off. Keys to success include avoiding favoritism as recognition is provided and ensuring that the recognition-effort link is meaningful.

What are Some Other Keys to Effective Rule Enforcement?

Total employee engagement offers the best way to ensure effective rule compliance. Coach your process owners – essentially all formal leaders – to provide effective informal positive recognition, and you will make major strides towards higher levels of engagement. Include an assessment of leadership favoritism in the workplace on your leader effectiveness survey. Doing so helps avoid the anti-engagement effect that such behavior and practices can have.

Jack Stack, who wrote “The Great Game of Business”, provided an equally great blueprint for giving people a stake in the business and empowering them to help revitalize Springfield Remanufacturing. Many of today’s Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award recipients are equally successful in empowering and engaging their people in a systematic manner. In these cases, and others, people follow the rules because doing so helps both the organization and the employees achieve higher levels of sustained success.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure Employee Ownership

I have detailed other proven engagement strategies in some of my earlier posts on that topic. Don’t forget the ‘compelling why’ concept mentioned above, however. To me, being able to consistently and effectively answer the ‘Why do we have to follow the rules?” question is one of the most, if not the most, important skills leaders need to have. Too many leaders struggle to answer this question themselves in a meaningful way.

Why do you follow the rules?

Please email me your questions or thoughts if you have them. Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

WEBSITEwww.greatsystems.com            EMAILkevin@greatsystems.com

FOLLOW me on Twitter: @greatsystems

LIKE Great Systems on Facebook

CONNECT with me on LinkedIn

© 2019, Great Systems, All Rights Reserved