Formal and Informal Recognition – Great Discipline Alternatives

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

This article builds on a 2017 article 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 look at how effective formal and informal recognition approaches serve as great discipline alternatives.

EXPLORE 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. In reality, the dictionary definition of enforcement has no negative tone to it at all. Enforcement merely means ‘ensure that people follow the rules.’

Unfortunately, too many of us have only seen negative forms of enforcement on display 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 famous coaches in the sports world are known for their explosive, and assumedly effective, negative natures. Even the television bosses we remember from the past are known 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 detection, but they still most likely break certain rules. People push problems underground as people hide errors that might get them in trouble. The act of discipline itself often damages relationships and reputations.

The organization should not tolerate poor performance, especially on the part of leaders. Actions we take to address poor performance should however have a positive, coach-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.

LEARN MORE: How to Measure and Improve Your Leadership Work System

How Do You Use Informal and Formal Recognition as Discipline Alternatives?

I created the Rule 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. It is easy to use the Rule Enforcement Matrix. First, ask your leaders to place a percentage in each of the four quadrants. The four percentages should total 100%. Second, have a dialogue about 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, such organizations use informal discipline less often than they do formal discipline. In both cases, I estimate that neither negative approach is in use more than 5% of the time. Leaders place the most focus on informal, positive enforcement. These daily actions need to be consistent across leadership groups, and formal recognition systems should be effectively support their use.

DISCOVER MORE: Empowerment, Engagement, and Creativity Drive 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

What cases might warrant formal discipline?

Some cases warrant formal discipline. Examples of such cases include fights or illegal substance use on the job. Other examples include improper company document completion and theft of company property. Some of my customers even have ‘life saving rules’. These rules, if broken, result in termination. Examples include cellphone use in a company vehicle or failure to isolate equipment before work.

When it comes to effective rule enforcement, discipline should be the ‘rarely used’ exception, not the rule. My experiences and benchmarks convince me that positive formal and informal enforcement strategies are much more effective. Most people follow the rules if they (1) know why it is important to follow the rules and (2) their leaders give them daily, consistent, positive, and meaningful feedback on their performance.

What Does the Use of Informal and Formal Recognition as a Discipline Alternative Look Like?

Informal positive enforcement works best when a leader delivers it 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 leaders fairly distribute such recognition in a consistent and timely manner (sooner versus later). Avoid ‘one winner’ systems at all costs.

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 staff earn points when they achieve performance goals in different areas. For example, staff can exchange points they earn for ‘company store’ items, gift cards, and even time off. Keys to success include the need to avoid favoritism as leaders provide recognition and ensure 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. You will make major strides towards higher levels of engagement. Include an assessment of leadership favoritism in the workplace on your leader effectiveness survey. In doing so, you help avoid the anti-engagement effect that such behavior and practices can have.

Jack Stack, who wrote “The Great Game of Business”, provides an equally great blueprint to give people a stake in the business and empower them to help revitalize Springfield Remanufacturing. Many of today’s Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award recipients experience equal success as they empower and engag 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

In some of my earlier posts on that topic, I detail other proven engagement strategies. However, don’t forget the ‘compelling why’ concept mentioned above. To me, one must be able to consistently and effectively answer the ‘Why do we have to follow the rules?” question. This 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?

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

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

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