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Also known as: informal discipline

Daniel Korski’s quote in The Spectator “when you start a new assignment, seek out a fight — and win it” reminds me of advice we had from an old schoolmaster to anyone aspiring to be a teacher. He said that when you start in your first class on your first day find someone doing something minor wrong, and thump them (this was the 1960s!) The rest of the class will then think: “Wow, if he gets thumped for that then what will happen to me if I do something really wrong?”

Of course today anyone thumping a worker, let alone a school pupil, is most likely to find themselves on an assault charge and therefore losing. But the basis of the advice still holds good. Dealing with the small transgressions (zero tolerance) frequently stops the larger ones developing at all.

So what can the new manager win? Enter any semi-dysfunctional workgroup and there should be plenty of choice. Pick something inexcusable: protracted gossiping, confidential documents lying on a desk, bad mouthing you …not quite behind your back. Stressful though the latter may feel it is, in fact, a golden opportunity for a fight that you can win. There is no excuse, you are the boss and your position is entitled to respect, whatever might be thought of you on a personal level.

So how do you win?

Firstly you need to act quickly. You may need to calm down first but, above all, do not ignore the adverse behaviour – this is your opportunity, not theirs.

Speak with them privately. Tell them specifically what they have or are doing wrong. Tell them how you feel about what they have done. The important point here is to own the stand that you are taking. Do not say: you are breaking the company’s policy on confidentiality. So what? You are the boss; it is you who is being let down, not some nebulous “company” and it is you who is disappointed to have to raise the matter. In our training sessions we then suggest a short period of uncomfortable silence – strangely, silence can exercise power.

Managers are often reluctant to take these steps – why? They fear the relationship will get worse. You’ve an employee who is 95% “OK” – why compromise that? Well if they are 95% OK, then tell them that too. If they are committed, follow your expression of disappointment by reminding them that you notice their overall commitment. Where they are only 50% committed, still find something to praise and re-affirm that you value them in your team (even if they don’t think much of you!) Always end on a positive note.

Finally find something to move on to, the next work task or some non-contentious communication.

Is it easy?

No, not really. That is why so many managers shirk it. The answer is to rehearse and practice. No matter how experienced you may be if this is something you haven’t done before then choose a safe environment and practice. This applies to Chief Executives too: That is the value of the training room. In a training exercise, you can get it wrong once or twice and have a laugh about it; your career is not at stake.

But do it right once in the workplace and, like the new 1960’s teacher, you may never have to do it again.