The war on initiative

My youngest, an 8th grader, was recently caught cheating.

On advice from her parents, she approached her teacher before school to admit she wasn’t prepared. Because it was the day of a basketball game, she asked to suffer the after-school detention on some other day. The teacher told her no, so my precious tax break borrowed a chum’s paper to write her own before second period.

Promptly caught, she was given a zero for the assignment.

Is the lesson she learned the intended one? When we discipline, or even criticize someone, are we teaching the lesson we want to teach?

By denying her the ability to control her time of punishment, the teacher meant to teach that actions have consequences. What she actually learned was that it’s better not to admit a mistake – to hide it and try to fix it alone.  From the child’s perspective, if teacher didn’t know she wasn’t prepared, he wouldn’t have seen her copying homework in the hallway.

These situations come up in the business world, too. What happens when an employee attempts an experiment that backfires? Usually we have him in for a talk about how processes exist for a reason, and how the rules must be followed. Punishment to be carried out at dawn.

That worker is now unwilling to ever act without permission. We’ve won a battle against disobedience, but we’ve also won a war against initiative. That’s a war we don’t want to win.

Employees who feel the freedom to find efficiencies in a system are usually the difference between growth and stagnation, and it’s most often an underling who finds a way to improve our operation.  We need to avoid quashing creativity in our zest for discipline.

In the Marine Corps there’s a saying: “Good Initiative, Poor Judgment.” This is what a commanding officer would say right before he punished a well-meaning jarhead whose plan ended in tears.

“Good Initiative, Poor Judgment” was his way of saying that independent thinking is encouraged and even though punishment is coming, it isn’t for trying – it’s for failing.

Marines are given the freedom to try and fail, and this is what makes our military so strong. We may be punished for a lack of success, but we’re given a pat on the back for using initiative. The message is clear: Initiative is good – even if the results aren’t.

I can say from experience that the pat on the back was worth more than money. An afternoon’s punishment digging a textbook foxhole in front of HQ wasn’t discouraging; it made me try harder – all because I knew I was on the right track. I learned the lesson they wanted to teach.

I don’t support my daughter cheating, but I had to convince her that she did the right thing by being upfront with her teacher. I also approved of her thinking of her team before herself and for her attempt to solve what she saw as a problem – even if her solution was the wrong one.

When it comes time to punish or criticize a subordinate, be thoughtfully specific about what it is you dislike and, if warranted, congratulate them for what they did correctly. Let’s be sure we’re teaching the lessons we want them to learn.

Categories: Management & Leadership