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Management vs. discipline: Know the difference

Ensure firefighters don’t perceive guidance and coaching as a reprimand to achieve the best results in education and growth


Management and employees alike, working together, can better understand each other’s perspectives.


By Ted Aroesty, FireRescue1 Contributor

Have you ever struggled to defend yourself after a simple conversation or suggestion you have given as a manager to improve an operation or a process? Has that conversation taken on a life of its own? Has a conversation like that ever been perceived as discipline?

I have found that in today’s environment, there is often confusion between the activity of management and the action of discipline. My intention is to help shed some light on the importance of why organizations need to intentionally address the difference between the two. If the differences between the two are brought to a conscious level, there should be much less confusion and organizations should be able to operate more effectively.

Management activities can include simple conversations on how one might improve performance in a particular area, and may also include demonstrations or additional training to gain a higher competency. The emphasis is on education and development of the individual, with the goal of improved performance.

Discipline tends to be more formal and can be more negative in nature. The downside of discipline is the inevitable feeling of being attacked. The upside of management activities is that you can leave an employee feeling like you are invested in them, because you took the time to teach them something instead of punishing them.

It is important to acknowledge that to properly address awareness of the differences between management activity and discipline, you must look at the behavior from both the management mindset and the employee mindset as they both play critical roles.

Use disciplinary action sparingly

First, we look at the management perspective. Management needs to be clear and consistent in its delivery and utilization of both management activities and discipline, and not confuse them. Management activities should be used in most, if not all cases. They should be presented in a non-disciplinary manner. This is a key factor leading towards success.

Management is what managers are expected to do on a daily basis to maintain, and more importantly, improve an organization. These activities include suggestions for process improvement and inquiry on thought processes.

Discipline on the other hand, should be used sparingly; only when there is a need for behavior modification that cannot be achieved through effective coaching, or a specific rule has been violated and discipline is required.

Second, from the employee perspective, there needs to be an openness to accept input and an understanding that it can be without repercussions. It seems that in today’s work environment, many employees struggle with being managed. They are fearful that guidance is discipline and their jobs are in jeopardy. The backlash then is that management is less likely to manage, and it affects morale and becomes a much bigger deal than whatever the simple issue was that was being addressed.

Operational slips such as incorrect apparatus placement at an incident, or being a few minutes late for a drill, require management guidance unless they cross over to insubordination due to repetitiveness.

Educate and improve the operation

Clear and direct communication is critical in all situations. It is important to get verification that all parties are on the same page. Repeat yourself and have the intended recipients of the message restate the message in their own words. This should significantly reduce miscommunication. By having them repeat the message in their own words, you will know how they have interpreted what they have heard. This gives a good opportunity to make any necessary real-time corrections.

Let’s use an example to paint a picture of how this works:

Your boss has a conversation with you about how you placed apparatus at the last working fire. This does not mean that you are being disciplined. It is quite possible that the officer is attempting to share some pearls of wisdom and another approach to consider for the next time. There may in fact have been some issues with what you did and you may have actually been wrong, which is irrelevant. It does not, however, mean this conversation is in any way discipline. If in the end, you are not presented with disciplinary action, then it should be fair to assume you are not receiving discipline.

Now from the officer perspective, it is important that when sharing these pearls of wisdom, it be done in an educational tone. If the officer beats down firefighters, they will feel beaten. So, even if it wasn’t intended to be discipline, it will be perceived as such. The officer should deliver a message that clearly presents how the actions could be improved and be sure to confirm the subordinate understands what was presented.

If the goal is to educate and improve the operation, then to achieve the goal, educate!

It is important for the fire service managers to work to better understand and educate firefighters and officers on the differences between management activities and discipline. Once there is a better acceptance of management activities:

  • Effectiveness of management will increase
  • Fear of management activities will be reduced
  • Morale will increase due to lack of fear and acceptance of management
  • Discipline should decrease
  • Organizations should run more smoothly
  • Communities will be the ultimate benefactors

We are in a changed culture, so we have to work within it. Management and employees alike, working together, can better understand each other’s perspectives.

About the author
Ted Aroesty is executive director, Brighton Fire District, Rochester, NY; and a member of the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board.

The Editorial Advisory Board, composed of some of the foremost experts in the fire service, will advise editors on the most timely and relevant information and resources for firefighters and officers across both FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, as well as providing content and insight into emerging trends of note for special coverage efforts.