One of the most asked questions from leaders who are inspired to direct high performance teams is “how do I determine when disciplinary action is appropriate for an underperforming team member?” Leaders are often looking for guidance and a framework that goes beyond the traditional response of "it depends".

The Relationship

It’s a simple philosophy - if you take care of your people, then your people will take care of your customers. To achieve this philosophy, organizations often focus on different people initiatives, such as culture, engagement, retention, and so on. These are important aspects of the working relationship; however, as a leader, your success or failure in driving business results stems from your relationships and how you treat people. The central goal (or outcome) in successfully leading people is to promote harmonious workplace relationships.

Setting Clear Expectations

In any relationship, each person (or party) has certain expectations. A core expectation within the traditional employer and employee relationship is that an employee is expected to perform responsibilities and comply with company policies and procedures in return for remuneration. Beyond this core expectation, leaders will often have other expectations, such as expecting team members to provide thoughtful customer service, collaborate with other team members, and be an ambassador of the company’s core values and behaviours. However, when a team member fails to meet expectations, a leader must determine if and when discipline is appropriate.

“The central goal in successfully leading people is to promote harmonious workplace relationships.”


Should you proceed with disciplinary action or a coaching conversation? When any team member fails to meet expectations, a leader must determine whether their behaviour was culpable or non-culpable. A determination of culpability will help lead you on a path of how to manage a team member’s performance and/or behaviour. A key factor in determining culpability is assessing the degree of control available to the team member to change or correct their behaviour. Simply put, is it a skill or will opportunity? A leader must ask themselves, “what are the possible reasons that the team member is behaving in this manner?” and “have I done everything reasonably possible to help my team member succeed?”

Skill Opportunities

To determine if you are dealing with a skill opportunity, you must ask yourself, “what are all the things that I can do to ensure my team member is successful?” The leadership checklist may vary, but in general, setting up your team for success includes but is not limited to proper onboarding and orientation, communicating the company and/or department’s goals, mission, and values, setting clear expectations, following up on the execution of those expectations, providing ongoing learning and development, providing frequent and informal feedback, and so on.