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Losing sleep is not a bad thing for a manager

Updated: June 28, 2013 - 2:06 pm

Posted: June 28, 2013

Have you ever disciplined an employee? I don't mean just determining an infraction or approving the final decision. Nor do I mean handing off the task to human resources or delegating it to the immediate supervisor. No, I mean meeting the person face-to-face and doing it yourself.

Discipline is a necessary function in every workplace, and some managers delight in performing that task. They feel it displays organizational power and they sometimes use it as a tool to flex their own managerial muscle. You hear a few even bragging about it in the lunch room.

Good managers, however, realize that such necessary personnel actions never call for celebration. Even though they may be equally aggravated by the employee's performance, and are just as upset as bad managers with the amount of paperwork-time it ultimately extracts from their very souls, good managers know it is not a joyous occasion.

The template for discipline, after all, comes from parenting children. When the model is applied to the workplace, "scolding" translates to reprimand, "time out" converts to unpaid suspension and "spanking" becomes termination. Most good parents honestly say to their misbehaving child, "This hurts me more than it hurts you." The task should be equally unpleasant with adults.

The first employee I had to discipline was twice my age. I was the new supervisor, from the outside, and entering a well-established informal work culture. Nothing had changed for decades in that work unit and, frankly, that is why I was hired. This particular employee did not want any part of "change."

But she was also an adult with more than 20 years of experience in that organization. She had a family and a church and was a good neighbor. She was a grandmother with, I am sure, plenty of experience in lovingly disciplining youngsters. As days turned into weeks, I grew frustrated: Why was she acting as a "child"? Her continued misbehavior was forcing me to move from informal "scolding" to a more formal confrontation.

Plus, this was a union shop, which meant no formal scolding could take place privately. The unit's steward had to be present. The contract also required me to have a third-party present. So there I sat on one side of a table, with my witness, facing this grandmother/employee and her witness.

I followed several rules that I've used ever since. First, apply the procedures of the particular organization. Do not assume your workplace common sense trumps official practice. Personnel manuals become notoriously outdated, but changing the handbook in the middle of a crisis is not the way to go. Your own job is on safer ground by following the handbook, even if it prescribes "bad" practice. If changes are needed, do it before or after its use.

Second, just as lawyers should never defend themselves, do not be your own HR specialist. Do exactly as your HR department directs, but make sure you get it in writing. It is amazing how the HR memory of verbal instructions can go south when their advice causes a larger mess on the shop floor.

Third, avoid debate during the scolding. I use a concise script that sticks strictly to the facts and avoids all emotion. Reading it verbatim keeps you on track. Given the potential witnesses in the room, the script will also keep you out of trouble in case of a responding grievance.

Finally, the scolding - or spanking - should be done as early as possible in the workday. While there may be good reasons why a manager must wait until the end of the shift, too often the delay is used as a psychological weapon - kind of like having a child think all day about the impending spanking when dad gets home.

While your aggravation may tempt you to optimize suffering, doing so will decrease productivity and increase anxiety of everyone including yourself.

I did not sleep well the night before or the night after my first issuance of disciplinary action. Not out of doubt over the necessity of the scolding, but because I knew I was dealing with an adult whose life was much more complex than the eight hours she "belonged" to my workplace.

I thought it would be easier the next time around, but it wasn't. For more than 30 years, I've lost sleep when I have had to "scold" or "spank" at the workplace.

Some managers prefer to render vengeance, and some just don't mind treating adults as children. They sleep well at night. Given the gravity of the disciplinary function, I believe losing sleep is not a bad thing. It is a sign of a good manager, not a weak one.

James D. Slack Ph.D. is a professor and director of the Master of Public Administration Program in the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. He can be reached at jslack@regent.edu.

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