The Art of Discipline

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Frank Graziano Jr.
  • 460th Medical Group first sergeant
When Airmen think of discipline, the first thing that pops into their minds is a letter of counseling, admonishment or reprimand. This is very true, but discipline also stands for knowing what to do and doing it without thinking twice about it. It's a habit, per se.

Starting from the time Airmen enter the military, they begin the discipline process; training and learning to reach their full potential. It has been proven that a disciplined force is a successful force. With that said, there are those occasions when people will deviate from those set rules and regulations, and in these instances, swift action should be taken.

However, the action may not be the hardest part -- it could be knowing what works for each of your subordinates while being fair and nonbiased. Hence, the art of discipline comes into play: figuring out the lowest level of discipline to positively change an Airman's behavior. So, the question is, how do you master this art we call discipline? 

When it comes to the art of discipline, the first step is providing direction that is clear and concise. If you provide the right direction, there is no question on how things are supposed to be done. Telling someone to be at work at 7:30 a.m. means exactly that: if you arrive to work after 7:30 a.m., you are late. It is very important the direction you give is specific, observable and measurable. One of the biggest mistakes a supervisor can make is giving unclear direction, or standards. Feedback, interaction and accountability is a never-ending process. Let's face it, if you let people do whatever they want without any sort of direction, you will find them playing Tetris on the computer for eight hours a day and getting nothing accomplished. When you have direction in place and someone deviates from the set standard, the next phase of the art of discipline comes into play.

Disciplinary actions may be needed in order to get someone to change his behavior and become compliant with the directions given to him. Knowing your Airmen is an important aspect in this step. If you don't know them, you won't know what works and what doesn't. Your goal is to change behavior so they conform to the rules and regulations. Ask any supervisor and they will tell you this is the hardest thing they have to do. Have you ever had an Airman standing in front of you crying and sobbing? Talk about a tough scenario --  but you always have to remember to remain professional with the objective in mind. It's never personal.

Sometimes you have to be creative in your disciplinary techniques in order to be successful. Find out what your Airmen value most and use that to help in your decision on what disciplinary tool to use. Sometimes a "simple talking-to" will get your Airman to conform to the set standards. Paperwork can be the eye-opener he needs in order to follow set directions. It all depends on the person, so creativity is the key to success. For example: An Airman is working on a piece of equipment that requires them to follow a Technical Order , or TO, and he decides not to use it. While working, he gets caught. You decide to give him a letter of counseling even though you know he will be bragging to his friends about getting some paperwork. Why not have him also do a safety briefing on why it is important to use a TO while working on equipment? Is this wrong? Of course not -- it is perfectly legal and it shows others what discipline they may expect while educating them at the same time. Most people fear public speaking so it can be a major deterrent from deviating from the standard.

What are you willing to do to discipline your Airmen? I remember having six Airmen who would take turns being late for work -- you could count on one to be late each day of the week. After they received paperwork, they were still tardy for work, so I decided it was time to be creative. Every morning at 6:30 a.m., I was in front of the dorms for 21 days straight. I made sure they were all accounted for, formed them up in a line formation, gave the command of "right face," and marched them to work. If someone was missing, I had one of the others go get him. Work didn't start until 7:30 a.m., so we were always on time. Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? Well, I had them form a habit. For the next year, after my formations, not a single one of them was late. They started watching out for each other and made sure Staff Sgt. Graziano wasn't going to be visiting them at the dorm at 6:30 a.m. I was willing to do this in order to discipline them into getting to work on time and taking care of each other. My Airmen knew I would do anything for them, even give up my own time in order to get them going in the right direction. Trust me, I got criticized for the way I handled it, but that was my choice. You know your own limits, so do what you think works.

You not only have to be able to discipline your troops, but you also have to be able to communicate with them. Saying the right thing at the right time can make a big difference in whether or not the discipline you chose will be effective. You also need to be on the same page with the other supervisors in your organization. Have you heard this one? "I have a cool supervisor; he lets me be late as long as I bring doughnuts in." You may be cool in your Airmen's eyes but you are hurting your organization in the process. All supervisors need to be addressing violations to standards at all times and following those standards they set. Don't be the cool supervisor; be the effective supervisor.

The last and final step of the art of discipline is the ultimate result -- a disciplined force. Your Airmen should know the direction, the repercussions for failing to abide by the standards and what needs to be done to get the mission done in a disciplined manner. We are the greatest fighting force this world has ever seen, and discipline is the cornerstone of our success. We know the difference from right and wrong. The choices we make could mean the difference between life and death.

The art of discipline is what makes the Air Force what it is today. The greatest success in a supervisor's career is when a non-conforming Airman blossoms into a leader because of what the supervisor did for him when the Airman was straying from the standards. You may even get that random e-mail years down the road thanking you for what you did for them. Being a supervisor is a thankless job at times, and we can be labeled as "the bad guy." Always remember, you are molding future leaders and training your replacements. We want to leave the Air Force in the hands of people who will make it even better than it is today. Using the art of discipline will secure this outcome.