Teaching Self-Discipline: Controlling Non-Productive Urges at the Team Level

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” — Jesse Owens, American Olympic athlete.

Teaching Self-Discipline: Controlling Non-Productive Urges at the Team Level by Laura StackI love Robert Orben’s famous quip, “Don’t smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, or work too much. We’re all on the road to the grave—but there’s no need to be in the passing lane.” Most folks see this statement as a warning to take care of yourself and do everything in moderation. But like all good humor, it contains multiple levels—and when you get right down to it, Orben’s statement is also about championing self-discipline over self-indulgence.

Many Americans know Orben best for his newsletter Orben’s Current Comedy, where he introduced tens of thousands of gags over the years. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, he was an institution among stand-up comics, including Dick Gregory and Jack Paar. He continued to be so in the following decades, with a brief side stint as President Ford’s speechwriter. These days he focuses mainly on corporate speaking engagements, commenting on life with his insightful one-liners. He’s been continuously active in his field since 1946—displaying quite a bit of self-discipline of his own.

Focused Teamwork

As a leader, you’ve no doubt learned how to apply self-discipline, or you wouldn’t have made it to your current position. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to teach the same value to your team members. Some will have it already; others will require some coaxing. Here’s what you need to do to make sure they’ve all got what it takes.

1. Clarify team goals. Your team goals will reflect the organizational goals, with some details specific to your team or department. That doesn’t mean everyone will know what to expect right off the bat. So when you first organize your team, or when you add someone new to it, spend some face time with them to directly communicate the team goals and what you expect of them in their specific role, explaining how their hard work benefits everyone on the team.

2. Establish clear rules. Clarify the organizational environment your team works in, explaining to them precisely what you’ll accept and what you won’t, what’s explicitly against the rules, and details of the policies and SOPs regulating their actions. Ideally, the latter should be available in the employee handbook.

3. Lay a foundation of accountability. Make it clear that, while you don’t intend to be punitive (unless something goes seriously wrong), you expect your people to accept responsibility for everything they do, regardless of the outcome. Honesty may prove painful at times, but even when it endangers a person’s job, encourage them to come clean. How else can they learn?

4. Encourage self-control. Give your employees opportunities to improve their productivity by eliminating bad habits: excessively long breaks, chatting over the water cooler, multitasking, procrastination, web surfing, and any other time-wasters. Provide alternatives, and if necessary let them know when they need to tighten up their productivity and what they need to cut.

5. Provide a good example. Let’s face it: your people will mimic your actions. When you show poor self-discipline, they will too. So while you don’t want to be a stickler, do act as a role model and follow company policy. Don’t just expect your people to do what you say rather than what you do; the real world doesn’t work that way, and ignoring that fact will only result in resentment and a lack of respect that can’t help but damage team productivity.

Getting the Job Done

If you’ve ever hesitated about enforcing self-discipline within your team, stop. You’re in charge for a reason. Some leaders worry that making sure their people do highly productive work might trigger resentment and high turnover. Admittedly, you can carry it too far with micromanaging, so be careful to avoid that. But my experience is that workers tend to respect tough-but-fair managers, especially when their management results in top marks and recognition from higher-ups. Of such things are bonuses and promotions made.

Have you ever found team self-discipline a problem? If so, how did you handle it—or head it off in the first place? Feel free to share your experiences in the Comments section.