Discipline  Words That Don’t Work

by Michael Kelly, MA

Over the years I've had the privilege of working with thousands of supervisors developing effective approaches to the occassional leadership act of disciplining employees. Over time I've come to separate two basic approaches - the human resources approach (1) and the human relations approach. (2) The human resource approach often concerns itself with the procedural, legal and liability obligations of the act. (3) If done properly, this is not a bad thing - it protects the organization and its sustainability. The human relations approach addresses heart issues. Many of us know the basic approach here:

  • do your human resources homework
  • provide warnings when applicable
  • discipline immediately after an infraction
  • seek first to understand before being understood
  • do the discipline respectfully but impersonally
  • keep responsibility where it belongs
  • keep it short and to the point
  • and once done, make sure not to leave the other person worse off than you found them.

This human relations approach can be tricky. We may engage in a discipline communication using words we’ve heard or been told are effective. Some of these may have predatory influences (4); some may come from the language we experienced throughout our lives. (5) One thing for sure, once the words are out, it's impossible to get them back. Say the wrong thing and a government, union or legal representative shows up at our door. Worse still, we now have a poisoned relationship to deal with in our day-to-day work lives. In the end, it is just as important to get the human relations part right (6) as it is to attend to the human resources part.

To help boost our human relation effectiveness I usually engage my course participants in a tense role play exercise to give them experience delivering discipline. The tension created in the exercise is designed to mimic the tension of a real-world discipline. (7) The exercise results are rewarding because participants get a chance to roll out their favourite words (8) when addressing various disciplinary situations. Even to the causal observer, we can see how the tension rattled participants invariably say things that could land them in trouble back at the work place. Here are a few samples of the more common mistakes:

Demeaning Words

"I knew this day was coming!"

Effect? Here the participants tell me the person being disciplined instantly feels discounted. It's as if they are measured solely on the failures, or accumulated failures. This failure measuring also acts as an indicator of more to come. In the end, the prospects for improved performance are appear slim at best. 

Bottom line? The person being disciplined is left worse off than we found them. Never say these words, or their variations.

Guilt Words

"I'm really disappointed in you. I thought we were friends?"

Effect? Participants usually argue that it's fine to be disappointed in someone but to link it to friendship is plain mean. The other person may feel like they failed at work and they may also feel like they've failed as a human being. It is essential to make the discipline about the issue and not the person.

Bottom Line? The person being disciplined is left worse off than we found them. Never say these words, or their variations.

Interrogation Words

"Do you know why I called you here?"

Effect? Participants immediately suggest it is not a good idea to immobilize a communication be confounding the other person. It doesn't matter how the person being disciplined answers this question, they risk looking like an idiot. 

Bottom line? The person being disciplined is left worse off than we found them. Never say these words, or their variations.

Victim Words

"I'm sorry but you leave me no other choice. Now I'm going to have to give you a warning."

Effect? These words usually generate a "wow" from the observers. There's nothing, they often say, like making the supervisor look like a victim. The supervisor didn't violate the rules, the person being disciplined did. 

Bottom line? The supervisor is worse off than they were. Never say these words, or their variations. Be sure to keep responsibility where it belongs.

Misdirecting Words

"Well, Kacey and Jordon are doing the same thing. Why aren't you disciplining them?"

Effect? Here an advantage is sought by the person being disciplined. Their words drive the supervisor to account for their own actions and away from the actions of the person being disciplined. The worst thing to do here is engage by answering, "Don't worry, Kacey and Jordon will get theirs at an appropriate time." These words set the supervisor up for failure by making them account for their actions to the person being disciplined, establishing a measuring stick for inequality, and diverting responsibility away from the person being disciplined.

Bottom line? The best answer in this case is to simple say, "This is not about anyone else, this is about you." Be sure to keep responsibility where it belongs.

If you get a chance to participate in one of these role-play sessions, take it. They are a bit unnerving at first but ultimately rewarding since they help temper our words away from discounting language to the more effective words of support. In the end our team's performance may count on it.



  1. Essentially a "by the book" approach ascribed to the needs of legal or collective bargaining requirements.
  2. Essentially a "by the heart" approach that helps keep responsibility where it belongs and never leaves anyone worse off than they were found.
  3. … be it the summary termination, progressive discipline, or discipline without punishment methods.
  4. For example, saying one thing but harbouring an intent that says "I've got you now, you miserable so-and-so."
  5. For example, we witness a parent disciplining a child saying, "What the hell were you thinking?" We might be tempted for whatever reason to think this is an effective way to discipline, perhaps just because it came from an earlier parental figure.
  6. Some would argue of course that it is more important.
  7. I argue that it is better to make mistakes in a training session than in the real world.
  8. … or idiomatic expressions.

© 2011  Michael C Kelly