Thursday, January 26, 2006


Thoughts based on observation and real life rather than research

In my own working career, business administrators used one of two approaches to resolve problems with employees. There were ‘firings’ (i.e. abrupt dismissals after repeated warnings), but there was another fascinating bit of business that I never would have known about it if it hadn’t been explained to me by a boss that had gone to an Employee Management Seminar. Something trickily labeled ‘constructive discipline’.

First take is ‘constructive’ sounds good; goal-orientated in a positive way. And maybe from a boss perspective it is. But from an employee perspective ‘constructive discipline’ hardly makes any sense at all.

In fact it would make more sense if it were called ‘destructive discipline’ instead because this is a process that seeks to diminish a worker’s self-worth by reducing authority without explanation and deliberately replacing high-end tasks with menial and repetitive tasks. A skuzzy process intended to make workers feel uninvolved, unloved and unwanted.

And because the strategy is a form of intelligence operation, it is highly secretive. Only the boss and executive staff can know. No one ever tells the person that is being ‘constructively disciplined’. It’s a big secret that the employee is unaware of. An unexplained time-out or avoidance discipline that leaves an employee puzzled and often thinking – “Something is so wrong here. Why am I being treated like this?” And when the rejection starts to rot their soul, they are so bewildered that they ultimately resign (which is often the hoped for result). But if walking out the door is not an option for them, they hang in there, in utter misery, meekly hoping things will get better, determined to stick it out – one painful day at a time.

The other thing about ‘constructive discipline’ is that it is far too often applied to persons who least deserve it. Unwarranted, because these are not employees that are slackers, that take all their sick days and then some. And oftentimes they are not workers that are consistently late for work, or invariably fail to meet deadlines. These are most often good and loyal employees that slip into a temporary slump as we all do at one time or another. Employees that are just bloody burnt out, or employees that are dedicating too much time to taking up other’s slack. Employees frustrated by lack of training, or in the midst of some personal turmoil that affects their work for a time. But, don’t get me wrong here, it is not always the undeserving employee who is forced to endure the scourge of ‘constructive discipline’.

Other times, ‘constructive discipline’ is applied when employees become so proficient in their own minds that they are unwilling to listen and learn. Or when the boss notices that despite a worker’s exceptional quality of work, they are equally efficient in another role – as a highly-infectious whimpering ball of negativity that infects the mood of the entire office.

In summation, the reason ‘constructive discipline’ is so distressing to workers is because it is like fighting an invisible enemy. Like a form of terrorism. How does a worker explain to a mediation board what is happening when they are so puzzled they can’t explain it? But from a bosses’ standpoint, this is the real cat’s meow. So easily justified to an adjudicating board by the simple statement. “Every job has its ups-and-downs – its pleasant tasks and unpleasant ones.”

I could go on and on but I think this is enough of a rant for today except for this final thought. When I started writing this I had nothing more in mind than a terse discussion about workplace discipline but at its conclusion, my mind is making other connections.

You may have to re-read this to see the parallels, but as my thoughts progressed I couldn’t help thinking that it is quite amazing that untold multitudes of people can apply a principle without even knowing about it or understanding it. I think on Tuesday voters decided to apply the theory of ‘constructive discipline’ to Paul Martin’s Liberal government.

And the other thought I had while writing this but it would take a blog or four to explore it – I wonder what kind of understanding people have of ‘constructive discipline’ that makes them think this form of discipline is an exemplary way to discipline a child?

There is much in these thoughts for discussion. If you live in the real world, I’m going to be quite puzzled if you don’t participate.


Anonymous Frankie said...

Oh, heavens! Constructive discipline sounds an awful like what I have planned for a colleague as I contemplate the possibility of soon becoming his supervisor. In the teaching world, there is tenure - a nasty, tenacious hiding place for the inept. Personally, I like this individual, but I think he is an embarrasement to the pedagogical world. My intention was to pressure him into better methodology by goal setting, observation, follow-up, and evaluation, as well as attendance at much needed professional development. Of course, if he failed to remediate there would be a clear trail of evidence that "I tried everything to rehabilitate" ultimately weakening his hold on tenure. (In the Navy, we would have called this indivdual "on the ROAD show" or Retired on Active Duty.) It burns me that he is so ineffectual while believing that he's a gifted teacher. What he is gifted at is bullshit. It's no wonder that management has tools like constructive discipline! You need a tool as equally insidious as it is vague to fight the lazy bastards you can't outright fire. It is a cunning tool of revenge on all those who have refined the art of manipulation and active inaction.
And this IS what my boss told me!

6:41 PM  
Blogger Roberta said...

frankie, I am so glad you stopped by. With thoughts that shocked and surprised me. But yet I fully see your point. Thank you for taking the time to elaborate on your stance enough for me to put it into context. Guess one thing that slipped my mind is something my husband frequently says, 'No one can deal with a liar.' But it appears your "Boss" has found a way to do just that.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

Oh, did you hit the nail on the head. My husband Steve, when he was working at Boeing, had some "constructive criticism" thrown his way because he would not bend his work restrictions. He has a disability, and Boeing knew that when he signed on, but every day they would constantly ask, what is it that you have again? and when will you be able to do more???.. They even made him sit in a corner and count nuts and bolts just to "humiliate him" into doing more. He sat there and did it day after day after day when it did not have the intended affect of making him quit his job and Steve wore them down instead.
For any worker who has had to suffer through me, it's the only way to win this game.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Frankie said...

I do see your point. And your point seems to be that, misapplied, constructive discipline is no more than corporate bullying. Though don't you think that many times, a worthy concept - or at least worthy at conception - can be perverted by the inethical? It sounds like your concern is when this idea is simply a euphemism for those that never learned to play fair on the playground.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

This has been an interesting discussion, thanks to esther and frankie.

The whole thing, as frankie suggests, is certainly a euphemism. And that is why, though apparently a simple process, oft times it end ups such a sloppy mess of insincerity, sincerity, or simply politics. Maybe not all workers, but that cunning worker frankie initially spoke of, when pressured will soon realize that they too have tools of manipulation at their disposal. As esther said, there are ways to win the game.

But on a more light-hearted note, it seems to me that the pros and cons of constructive discipline can be paralleled by the simple domestics of my own life. I have been married to the same man for 30 years and life is very good. Though sometimes difficult initially, the relationship became much easier when I dropped the constructive discipline approach. The hope to remold the man (as if?). And instead intentionally demonstrated more consideration, devotion, etc. In fact, I even told Hub he could be boss, though not in those exact words. (which of course leaves me knowing I’m boss, and him thinking he is).

On the other hand, constructive discipline (which when applied domestically is nothing more than an endless and disruptive debate from first to last over equality of finances, housework, time away from the kids, followed by review, re-evaluation, etc) would have led straight to divorce court.

But despite this, though sometimes unethical, even evil, as frankie suggested, it remains a tool necessary to some purposes when used appropriately.

Further comments are still welcome even though I must move on. I have other things to tell that no one may have told you.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Dick said...

What a foul, disingenuous phrase. Very sadly, 'constructive discipline', along with a number of other & equally brutal management techniques, is being employed by the new business-oriented management at my old school.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Roberta said...

You are so right, Dick. The nomenclature seems so wrong that I think that might have been the underlying catalyst that prompted this post expressing such distaste. Like the process itself there is deceit evident in that particular description.

10:03 AM  

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