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Why progressive discipline doesn’t work (and what to do instead)

Rather than being punitive and threatening, this problem-solving approach to undesired behavior leads to positive change.

Why progressive discipline doesn’t work (and what to do instead)
[Photo: DragonImages/iStock]

In my book, “progressive discipline” is a dirty phrase. Unfortunately, it’s also the most common approach to dealing with employee behavior and performance problems. This strategy supposedly aims to correct problems using a system of graduating threats. It starts with a verbal warning, followed by written notice if things don’t get better. The whole process is doomed to fail. If you think about it, this is an official company policy to treat people progressively worse while making it progressively more difficult for them to improve.

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Punishment can occasionally force temporary behavior changes, but it doesn’t help employees or enact lasting change. So why are companies still practicing progressive discipline? Simply put, it’s the norm. Attorneys and the Society for Human Resource Management recommend it, and employers agree. Many people believe that it’s a “safe” option because it protects companies from being sued or losing unemployment claims. Furthermore, it turns out a good deal of managers—37% of them, in fact—aren’t comfortable having poor-performance conversations, which ends up further diminishing progressive discipline’s appeal and overall effectiveness.

Performance coaching is better than progressive discipline

Admittedly, this practice seems to frustrate managers and HR alike. Under a progressive discipline policy, a manager has to go through the prescribed number of steps, even when an employee isn’t willing to change. Not only does this elaborate firing process eat up time and paperwork, but it also assumes managers are incompetent. It doesn’t allow them to evaluate a situation in a thoughtful way.

An alternative to this ineffective (and disrespectful) status quo is performance coaching. Rather than being punitive and threatening, this problem-solving approach to undesired behavior leads to positive change. It moves faster, sets optimistic expectations, and facilitates cooperative progress rooted in mutual respect. Coaching works to resolve performance problems by building relationships and creating growth. There are several aspects of coaching that set it apart from traditional discipline. But the most important of all is that they tend to involve solving a problem, rather than just documenting a disciplinary action. Here are the three steps that you should take.

1. Prepare for conversations in advance

A progressive discipline is usually the first step to termination, but a coaching approach is not. After my company helped one furnishing business, Arteriors, make the switch from progressive discipline to active coaching, the organization’s HR director, Becca Lindsey, discovered her mindset around performance improvement had shifted.

“With coaching, you must have the belief that people will get better,” she told me. “I have to think, ‘This conversation will completely turn this person around.’ That’s hard sometimes. The way we’ve been conditioned often suggests the contrary. But you have to believe your employee can get better and can fix this, or it’s pointless.”

To enter the conversation with the right mindset and maintain respectfulness throughout it, plan the language you’ll use and the details of the situation that they need to address. Avoid loaded words like “moody,” “lazy,” “entitled,” or “disengaged.” They’re not helpful to you or the employee. Stick to facts.

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Be careful not to exaggerate, and cite specific examples about behavior or performance gaps. Always center your explanations around how the problem affects the business, you, or others, so that your employee understands the bigger picture.

2. Probe for causes

Acting as a coach, the supervisor should inspire from the sidelines. A mindset of curiosity should guide probing questions meant to get to the root of a problem. Turn the conversation over to team members by asking open-ended questions like, “What’s causing this? What’s getting in your way? What’s going on?”

The first answer is rarely the underlying issue, so it’s good to continue probing with more questions or to say, “Tell me more.” The very act of listening diffuses unwelcome emotions. Conversely, avoid the tendency to offer perceived reasons like, “I know you’ve been dealing with problems at home.” Leaders also tend to take ownership by providing help or offering their own solutions. In these kinds of conversations, this approach isn’t necessarily helpful.

With coaching, you don’t need a third-party witness to these conversations, because you’ve removed the likelihood that the discussions will deteriorate. Acting with respect and eliminating the need for a witness builds trust —something that’s essential to workplace satisfaction. But again, this only happens if the supervisor assumes the employee is a decent person who wants to improve.

3. Facilitate resolutions—don’t provide them

It feels terrible to discipline someone for a performance issue, mainly because it doesn’t make sense. You’re not the employee’s parent; you’re two intelligent adults with a problem that needs a resolution. But remember, it isn’t your problem to solve. The employee should take ownership of the problem.

Once you’ve probed to clarify root causes, ask, “How will you fix that?” If the team member is responsible for developing a solution, he or she will experience the commitment and empowerment that comes from being treated—and acting—as an adult.

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As you wrap up the conversation, remove any phrasing from your vocabulary that starts with: “Failure to correct behavior will result in . . .” This is an example of threatening and hostile language that can undo all progress. Instead, end with a statement of confidence (or at least hope) in the employee’s ability to correct the problem.

As an employer, you manage a team of adults who deserve to be treated as such. When you treat your employees with respect, even when they make mistakes, you’ll find that trust and loyalty will follow. In the end, you’ll get a team that sticks around and wants to grow alongside you.


Sue Bingham, founder, and principal of HPWP Group, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 35 years.

This article has been updated to add the name of the HR director of Arteriors 

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