The Martial Arts Approach to Discipline

Congratulations, you have been promoted to a position of management. In addition to the modest spike in pay, there is also an increase in both prestige and power. And, if you never have to deal with a low performing or difficult employee, the new position would be ideal. However, eventually, you will have to performance manage or discipline one of your direct reports. Sometimes, no matter what a boss does or how compassionate s/he might be towards their staff, there will come a time when performance management and/or disciplinary actions are unavoidable. It is at this point that the realization of having power over someone reveals the unbearable heaviness of supervision.

As the boss you must be exceedingly careful. If you don’t handle your enormous power both carefully and correctly, a wrongful discharge suit may very well be in your future. You have to keep a paper trail, just in case of potential litigation. Yet and still, you cannot ‘set the employee up’; you must give the person every opportunity to correct the performance deficiency and bring their performance back to an acceptable level. Now performance management is different from misconduct breaches, like stealing, falsification, fighting, et al. In the case of misconduct, there are instances where the employee is immediately terminated due to the gravity of the offense. However, in cases of substandard performance, the issue is not so black and white. The employee may be a good person who is trying very hard, but just isn’t “cutting it”, so to speak. In fact, the person could be a former peer who you’ve socialized and commiserated with on prior occasions. But, now you are the boss and others are watching to see how you handle this and other performance management issues. Well, in the HR world, we employ what is called “Progressive Discipline.”

Progressive discipline insures that, at the very least, procedural due process is accorded the employee. What this means is that you follow certain procedure steps to insure that the employee gets a fair shake. Although procedural due process is necessary, it might not always be sufficient. For example, simply creating the optics of procedural due process, when the decision to terminate the employee has already been made—and there is nothing they can do to change your decision is a failure to provide substantive due process. So, what’s a boss to do? Well, I always kept an open mind and told the employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that nothing would please me more than their proving my assessment of them wrong.

I employed what I called my Zen approach. My Zen approach took the elements of trained martial artists and applied them to performance management. In reality, my Zen approach was really Progressive Discipline interpreted in the way a Kung Fu practitioner would deal with a potential encounter. Therefore, I recommend using the following steps:

  1. Observe the person’s behavior (performance) before assuming anything,
  2. Warn before confronting (a face-to-face review of expectations meeting)
  3. Confront ( verbal warning) before injuring ( written warning)
  4. Injure (written warning)before maiming (performance improvement plan-PIP)
  5. Maim  (PIP) before you terminate employment
  6. Terminate before you belittle or shame
  7. Respect their efforts, to insure a dignified exit

In summary, what Progressive Discipline consist of is 1) a verbal warning, 2) a written warning, 3)  a performance improvement plan (PIP) that is SMART—i.e., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound, and,4) a decision to retain or release.