Leadership and maintaining discipline

I’ve covered before the fact that a title of “Leader” doesn’t actually make you a leader. Simply being in charge doesn’t bestow leadership, which is active, example setting, and interactive. There’s a reason the phrase “lead by example” exists, and countless tales of commanders leading men into battle having more respect than faceless commanders elsewhere.

Yet still one of the most pervasive ideals of management roles is “maintaining discipline”. That sounds reasonable at a glance, right?

 Well, let’s look at what it really means:

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So, realistically we’re talking about conditioning, control, enforcement, self-control, or punishment. Only one of these things speaks me me about a skilled worker effectively getting their job done; see if you can spot it. The rest all speak only of a sense of power.

This might make sense in a military setting, but in business, in a socially complex and multiple-industry environment relying on innovation and progress, it makes a lot less.

What I find interesting is that when you look back, the idea of maintaining discipline is a holdover from the earlier days of Taylorism where it meant ensuring people in a factory production setting essentially acted like components in a machine, and “discipline” meant removing as much humanity as possible to enforce efficiency.

With the changes of the modern world and market, as well as the advanced complexity and role requirements, this is distinctly anachronistic; if we’d had the capabilities then we do now, we’d have automated all that from the get go, and I think modern worklife would look very different.

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Or:

You can’t break down something complex into smaller pieces, only something simple or complicated. Most business is complex.

But how do I maintain control of a workforce?

The idea of requiring discipline, as if a company is an army, makes a mockery of the mutually beneficial contract between company and skilled workforce, who are supposed to fit together to produce something of worth. Workers are adults; if you don’t trust them to do their job, work from home, be sensible – whatever it is – and have to micromanage them or police them to ensure they are not falling out of line, why have you even hired them? What culture does this suggest you have? How do you get things done efficiently? And what management style have you been conditioned to?

This is an issue I’ve seen with a lot of MBAs in the past, and I’ve had people who teach them at prestigious business schools (such as the London School of Business) agree on this point: the core, traditional business concepts are still taught, despite having never been truly fit for purpose, and because it’s a qualification, it’s taken as the be all and end all of management science, despite having hardly changed since Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor created the core concepts! An MBA is a definite achievement, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not simply an argument-ending mic-drop. There are huge benefits to studying for one, because you’re not only taught traditional management, but we need to also treat things with insight and curiosity to move forward and find better ways to do them.

A qualification is the start of true learning, not the end of it.

Just because something has always been done that way… it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the best way to do it.

But some people need discipline!

If you impose strict restrictions and policies on a workforce that is not invested in the system, you invite gaming behaviour, cynicism, sycophantism, and lack of engagement. At this point, yes, people are perhaps acting in a less adult fashion and require discipline to realign them with the company’s expectations – but that’s the whole point. This is not a healthy expectation in the first place.

The same ideal of “discipline” also sees the repression of the innovators in a company – the heretics, mavericks, outliers. Discipline becomes about fitting in, meeting metrics that are more important than the outcomes they purportedly measure, and – essentially – supporting a rigid hierarchy.

The very fact you have created an environment like this as a role-titled leader has two effects:

Firstly, you have now invited the very behaviour you tried to avoid, allowing those who game and manipulate politics, rules and policies to hide behind and actually be disruptive to work for personal gain; in other words, you have encouraged a toxic culture and atmosphere. These people – who aren’t invested, don’t care about the company or their coworkers, and will do anything for themselves to get ahead – do need discipline, but they are rarely the ones that get it.

If you worked on a basis of investment and mutual trust in the first place inside a healthy culture, they’d have far fewer places to hide and could be mitigated or removed much more quickly and cleanly – or not invited in in the first place!

Remember:

Culture is defined by the actions and inactions of leadership. If discipline is required company-wide, accountability for this is held only in one place.

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Secondly, you’ve set up fertile soil for the Cycle of Woe:

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When the hierarchy in a company matters more than anything else, the system isn’t working. If you truly lead – without relying on your training of the bureaucracy being the structure to maintain – people will invest in you and the company, and you won’t need to “maintain discipline” outside the very few actual troublemakers, and each of those needs to be dealt with in context. Not all troublemakers are troublemakers; sometimes they just need to do things differently, but can then deliver outstanding benefits.

And this attitude of hierarchy being all is instilled from the very first interview, with many companies ghosting prospects, demanding what they will offer whilst wielding contracts stating more hours than contracted are expected to be worked, and treating the process as if prospects are vying for a great honour – rather than looking at fit and human skills to move forward to mutual benefit.

Leadership relying on enforcing discipline simply isn’t Leading.

This is why I find the entire concept a barrier to business, to trust, and to human interaction. When a manager says “I need to see what you do with every minute of your day” even though you deliver consistent, excellent results and outcomes, what they’re really saying is “I feel the need to exert power over you”, and I can virtually guarantee they are bad at their own job and not thinking about benefiting the company if they’re spending their time micromanaging yours. When they say “I need to maintain discipline”, it’s worth asking why. Is this one problem person? Is it everyone? Is it really a problem, or just something requiring a paradigm or interaction shift?

If the answer is simply “because I’m in charge”, there is a major problem.

I once had a boss tell me I wasn’t allowed to do something I needed to do for my job, and effectively block my career for his own purposes (along with constant micromanagement, isolation, and offline talks to other management, as well as directly breaking my professional trust). When I inevitably had to do what he’d told me not to to actually do my job, and I then raised this issue to his boss, he used this as a demonstration of how uncontrollable and untrustworthy I was. HR’s response – even though they found on my side! – was “but you disobeyed a direct order”(!). To which my response was roughly:

“What is this, the army? Am I doing the job better than anyone else?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want this to continue?”

“Yes.”

“Then please stop ‘disciplining’ me and let me get on with doing that.”

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Being a “boss” or “in charge” doesn’t make you a leader or give automatic respect. It’s also worth noting you can be a leader without it being in your role description; anyone who influences people positively within the company is a leader, whatever their actual job. Look at how they enable, invest, and encourage – without the power inherent in a title, or from the bureaucracy – and you can see how leadership works, and discipline is reduced to the only beneficial form: self-control. 

Don’t just take my word for it – there is a wealth of decades of evidence, studies, and frameworks designed around this very real problem. People are complex, and not perfect; companies need to truly understand how to manage them. Realistic expectations must be set either side.

There’s a lot more to this, and it integrates into a lot of areas, but for now:

I’d suggest it’s time we rethink our conditioned ideas of command and control, and maintaining discipline. 

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