Caught between the extremes of high initiative and high indiscipline, managers do not know which way to look. They are afraid that enforcing any form of disciplinary efforts may dampen the initiative and discretionary effort that they have come to depend on in huge measure.

Ganesh Chella

"We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."

Mark Twain

What Mark Twain said ages ago truly reflects the dilemma in the minds of many of our people managers who have the onerous task of promoting and maintaining discipline among young knowledge workers who have been entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

Consider this: On the brighter side, managers realise that many of today's knowledge workers across industries go beyond their contractual obligations and display initiative and work longer and harder. On the darker side, these managers also have to deal with an increasing number of young employees who do not seem to display even the most basic levels of self-discipline that one would expect at their levels.

Caught between the extremes of high initiative and high indiscipline, managers do not know which way to look. They are afraid that enforcing any form of disciplinary efforts may dampen the initiative and discretionary effort that they have come to depend on in huge measure.

Like Mark Twain, they fear that the cat will not sit on a cold stove too!

In the early days, discipline meant `disciplining' and always had connotations of punitive action. Discipline was also restricted to workmen whose maturity was generally considered low and who were merely expected to "follow the rules" and do what was asked of them. All of this was set against the backdrop of labour laws and strong unions, both of which protected the workmen and made it extremely difficult for managers to secure discipline even when warranted. In contrast, today's employees do not have the support of law or of the unions. They, however, have the support of an even more powerful weapon employability and mobility! Today's managers fear that any attempt to discipline employees may lead to loss of `morale' and `attrition'.

From the "problems of protection" we seem to have moved to the "problems of plenty".

We can define discipline as the `

process'

of securing conformance to pre-established `

standards of behaviour'

at the workplace.

The `

process'

includes education, training, counselling, mentoring and of course when needed corrective and punitive actions.

The standards of behaviour cover two areas:

Personal standards

Professional standards

The first question to ask is if there is a fall in the overall standards of discipline among our young and modern day employees?

I certainly believe that we do have a problem. What are the personal and professional standards I am referring to and where is the problem?

Personal standards

would include attendance, punctuality, personal grooming, integrity, honouring contractual obligations and personal commitments.

In my opinion, organisations generally secure conformance in most areas of personal standards through the use of strong internal processes aided by technology.

The few issues of lack of integrity in terms of falsification of personal records for employment, cheating, abuse of flexi-time policies do not alarm me. Yes, they need to be dealt with firmly and I think they will, sooner or later.

Professional standards

would include displaying quality in one's work output, displaying professional rigour, thoroughness, depth and application of mind, dealing with customers and co-workers with respect, demonstrating commitment to continuous learning and maturation and readiness to share one's knowledge and skills.

What concerns me most is the falling professional standards. While product quality is becoming better by the day, personal and professional quality is not. Be it the repair man at your door or the customer service person you spoke to over phone or the retail sales person you interacted with or the young engineer on the shop floor of a factory or in a software organisation, or the doctor you consulted, I see falling professional standards everywhere.

What is especially concerning is the lack of professional rigour, thoroughness, depth and application of mind.

In a lot of my interactions with business leaders, this is one thing they bring up they lament about the lack of depth and lack of commitment and ownership and ask me for solutions.

When I go back and speak to these young employees, I get to understand the root cause and the truth. They tell me their understanding of what their organisations really want. They believe that their organisation really wants results at all costs that their leaders and managers say the right things but most often ask about results and not about the means.

They complain about lack of resources and infrastructure, lack of training and personal preparation to deliver quality. They also complain that their managers do not lead by example. Be it a retail store or a software company, it is not uncommon to find one day old employees being asked to deal with customers.

So, while we do have a problem with poor professional standards among our young and modern employees, the root cause lies elsewhere.

It lies in the board-rooms and cubicles of leaders in these organisations.

Organisations which invest in inculcating the right values and standards are also willing to put values before profits. They are willing to take hard decisions to deal with transgressions just as they are willing to say no to business opportunities for which they and their people are ill-equipped.

On the contrary, organisations which celebrate marketing success and ignore operational failures will have to deal with deteriorating professional standards among their employees.

Personal and professional standards are a function of the Organisation culture. You finally get what you deserve!

(The author is the founder and CEO of totus consulting. totus consulting is a strategic HR Consulting firm that designs and implements HR systems and process for Organisations across diverse industries. He can be reached at ganesh@totusconsulting.com)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 6, 2006)
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