Creating a Culture of Ownership: How leaders can build a system of discipline

(*Part 3 in a three-part series on Ownership)

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Every team has a Harry

He is the player who is never plugged into the needs of the team; or his own for that matter. He is that team member who believes he can enjoy reward without effort. 

For leaders who have a passion for managing talent from recruitment through to high performance, these players tend to be bitter personal disappointments. It really irks me when a very talented youngster fails to convert their gifts into performance on the back of their own selfishness and ill-discipline.

Although I don’t believe there is a perfect model for developing disciplinary protocol in a team, it is essential to have a formal stance on dealing with problem players. Even if it is a laissez-faire one, every team leader needs to know what the philosophy is.

Here are some tools on building disciplinary systems that I’ve taken from my time working with young professional teams or picked up from colleagues in other systems:

1. Make discipline a team sport

Strong teams will always be in favour of group behaviour that allows everyone the ability to perform, whether it’s sport or work, so it would be meaningful to make the practice of team discipline a group project.

A great way to make discipline a personal matter is to attach it to the values of the team. Any team that is worth its success will have a set of values or themes that drives their behaviour.

Once a team agrees on its values, they should define and list the types of behaviour that would characterise the growth or devaluation of the team’s performance environment. A lack of discipline entails diverting from the team’s values.

This list of positive and negative behaviours constitutes the team’s code of conduct and draws its boundaries for disciplined behaviour. 

Having this process run by the team ensures ownership of any outcomes that may arise from disciplinary issues during a season.

2. Make sure every action has a reaction

If, for example, Extreme Sacrifice, is one of your team values that prioritises the performance needs of the team above personal luxuries, then drinking the night before a game, arriving late for sessions or not doing personal prep would be behaviours liable for consequence.

Consequences for transgressions should be decided upon upfront, be simple, limited to a handful of ‘transgressions-and-punishments’ to avoid an onerous rulebook and their nature requires full team buy-in. They should also be meaningful for players to want to avoid them.

Consequences can range from spot-fines and menial tasks (minor infringements), to matchday suspensions and eventual dismissal (serious infractions). It is up to the team and management to decide what is fair given their philosophy on discipline.

3. Appoint an objective executioner in your team

Make sure that the result of the above process is a one-page document that each player gets to sign and stick up on his wall. This places firm responsibility for its implementation in their hands.

If players have a guide for performance-driven behaviour then there can never be an excuse when they decide to entertain their own desires above the needs of the team.

The most powerful use for this code of conduct is that it acts as a third party that makes decisions unemotionally and objectively. This takes the onus away from management to try and make consistent calls every time someone transgresses. The team’s own code of conduct essentially makes the decision on the outcomes of misbehaviour.

There will be times when misbehaviour can’t be accurately categorise. In these cases there needs to be a mechanism to interpret the code of conduct and implement its application. Such a mechanism is discussed next.

4. Involve senior team leadership in team discipline

It’s always recommended to empower senior members of a team to apply the terms of a code of conduct when needed. The code of conduct originated as a team-driven process so the resulting consequences should be driven by its leaders.

Almost all teams will appoint a senior players group, so to task them with this process is a no-brainer. Team management can vary the control of this process depending on the age and experience of its players.

Older athletes can take more control of the disciplinary process up to a point where top professional teams often have their full disciplinary systems run by the senior players.

The severity of the transgressions also determines the level of player involvement. You don’t want to call a leadership meeting every time a player arrives late. You know your system is working when players feel empowered to solve misbehaviour themselves.

5. Consistency is king

It is crucial to create a system of consequence that means something. Meaning is created by consistently and effectively applying your discipline system for the whole season.

A disciplinary system especially starts to suffer during the later stages of the year. Certain team members might have become crucial to success, so when they misbehave, leadership often won’t follow through on punishment.

Long seasons also affect the energy levels of leadership so management members’ willingness to engage in off-field challenges dwindles as a year gets long.

A good solution for this is to make disciplinary problems part of a specific management member’s portfolio, which effectively makes it part of his year-end KPI’s towards the team.

6. Hang the dirty laundry out to air and then move on

Make sure that the team is aware of any player transgressions that deserve attention. This puts guilty parties on the spot and ensures team members know there are consequences for breaking protocol.

There is no need to shame anyone in this process. Allow transgressing players to take ownership of their breach of protocol in front of their teammates and then allow them to move on. 

Get teammates to encourage this practice of honesty and support and praise team members who own their mistakes. This practice can build a culture of safety and keeps a clear line within which to perform. People generally focus better when they know where the boundaries are.

7. If the person can’t change, change the personnel

Needless to say, if it is clear that a player is never going to start pulling his weight, replace him with someone who is.

This is a straightforward principle, but not always simple to implement.

It’s not easy to transfer a player mid-season. Likewise, contracts often can’t be terminated without a long and arduous formal disciplinary process. This often requires more energy than what it would cost to just reduce a difficult player’s gametime.

If benching a constant problem-player is the chosen route, make sure to have a strategy in place should they use this as a good reason to really derail their behaviour.

The best route, if not immediate dismissal, I believe, is to notify him that he will not be receiving a contract extension once his current agreement ends. This will often kick them into gear, but effectively it opens the way for him to start his exit from your organisation. If you can transfer him straight away, even better.

If you are lucky, he just might request an early release from his contract!

8. Don’t take it personally

If you have truly done what you can and followed the above steps, you should never take a team member’s continued poor character as a failure of your own leadership. It is your responsibility to create a receptive environment to allow players to grow, but if a player simply isn’t willing to, then don’t dwell on it.

What is your responsibility, however, is to put the plan in place to deal with people like this. Always act when needed, keep a record of every discussion with the player and then make the tough calls when needed.

Leadership’s overarching goal is to build strong teams, win titles and be sustainably profitable. These are the tenets for survival of any organisation, so if an individual is continuously going to undermine this, without any real desire for rehabilitation, then he can’t be a part of that organisation.

Unfortunately you cannot be responsible for the fortunes of every person in your care. Everyone is responsible for their own fate. Do as much as you can to help them. And then let it go, let them go and move on.

Leadership legend, John Maxwell, condenses some of the above lessons for a business environment. (From the John C. Maxwell YouTube channel)

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