Are We Teaching Employees the Lessons We Want Them to Learn?

My youngest, an 8th grader, was recently caught cheating.

On advice from her parents, Natalie approached the teacher before school to admit she wasn’t prepared. Being the day of a basketball game, she asked for a way to suffer the after-school detention on some other day. The teacher told her “no,” so my precious tax break borrowed a chum’s paper in order to write her own before class.

Promptly caught, Natalie was given a zero for the assignment.

Is the lesson she learned the intended one? When we discipline, or even criticize someone, are we teaching the lesson we want to teach?

A war you don’t want to win

By denying her the ability to control her time of punishment, the teacher meant to teach that actions have consequences. What Natalie actually learned was that it’s better not to admit a mistake — to hide it and try to fix it alone. From the little girl’s perspective, if teacher didn’t know she wasn’t prepared, he wouldn’t have seen her copying homework in the hallway.

These situations come up in the business world, too. What happens when an employee attempts an experiment that backfires? Usually we have him in for a talk about how processes exist for a reason, and how the rules must be followed. Punishment to be carried out at dawn.

That worker is now unwilling to ever act without permission. We’ve won a battle against disobedience, but we’ve also won a war against initiative. That’s a war we don’t want to win.

Employees who feel the freedom to find efficiencies in a system are usually the difference between growth and stagnation, and it’s most often an underling who finds a way to improve our operation. We need to avoid quashing creativity in our zest for discipline.

In the Marine Corps, there’s a saying: “Good Initiative, Poor Judgment.” This is what a Commanding Officer would say right before he punished a well-meaning Jarhead whose plan ended in tears.

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Freedom to try and fail

“Good Initiative, Poor Judgment” was his way of saying that independent thinking is encouraged and even though punishment is coming, it isn’t for trying – it’s for failing.

Marines are given the freedom to try and fail, and this is what makes our military so strong. We may be punished for a lack of success, but we’re given a pat on the back for using initiative. The message is clear: Initiative is good — even if the results aren’t.

I can say from experience that the pat on the back was worth more than money. An afternoon’s punishment digging a textbook foxhole in front of HQ wasn’t discouraging; it made me try harder — all because I knew I was on the right track. I learned the lesson they wanted to teach.

I don’t support my daughter cheating, but I had to convince her that she did the right thing by being upfront with her teacher. I also approved of her thinking of her team before herself, and for her attempt to solve what she saw as a problem — even if her solution was the wrong one.

When it comes time to punish or criticize a subordinate, be thoughtfully specific about what it is you dislike and, if warranted, congratulate them for what they did correctly. Let’s be sure we’re teaching the lessons we want them to learn.

David Sneed is the owner of Colorado-based Alpine Fence Company and author of Everyone Has A Boss – A Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company. As a Marine, father, husband, entrepreneur, author, and teacher, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the personal benefits of a strong work ethic to entry-level employees. Contact him at


3 Comments on “Are We Teaching Employees the Lessons We Want Them to Learn?

  1. Loved your article there David, yes so thoughtful. It is true the experience of being a “human being”, and dealing with this fact, is the same across the different stages and fields of life whether you’re a student, an employee, a family guy…
    Thanks for breaking it down to us with your youngster’s example!

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  2. Great Article! Really drives  home the point that life is full of lessons. Its up to us to choose which ones are worth teaching!

  3. Companies should communicate their policy on independent decision
    making. Employees should know whether they have the authority to make a
    decision without consulting management. Having policies in place will eliminate
    the problem of punishing or criticizing a subordinate for taking initiative.

    For example, I am a strong proponent of act now,
    apologize later.  In the staffing
    industry, things move fast. As a result, my staff is autonomous and makes
    decisions in the moment, sometimes without guidance from upper level
    management. Although occasionally this leads to a mistake, most mistakes can be
    remedied with little detriment to the company.

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