How To Discipline Using Douglas McGregor’s Hot Stove Rule

Regardless of how long you’re in management, there will come a time when you will have to face the prospect of offering some kind of discipline to a staff member. Although thought of as being punishment, discipline should be seen as a way of convincing someone there are higher standards to attain, and you are offering the individual the chance to improve.

While progressive discipline is generally the most effective method of dealing with discipline, it must be practiced within a larger framework. To increase the likelihood of positively influencing employee performance and protecting against legal action, keep Douglas McGregor’s “hot stove rule” in mind:

Foreseeable; Just as the flames or red coils provide warning that you will be burned by touching the stove, your employees should know in advance that poor conduct or performance will result in specific, pre-determined consequences.

Immediate; When you touch a hot stove, you know instantaneously that you have done something wrong. Similarly, an employee should be quickly told if he or she is failing to meet expectations.

Impersonal ; The fact that you are burned is a function of the stove, not who you are. Likewise, the discipline applied in a particular situation should reflect the offence, not the person who committed it.

Consistent ; Regardless of who touches a hot stove, the result will be the same each and every time. This is also true of discipline; it should not be applied randomly or by chance, nor should it differ, for the same offence, from one person to the next.

By sticking to your organisation’s written disciplinary policy, you will help your team to work well and effectively, and may also improve your company’s defence against law-suits.

So, see the disciplinary procedure as McGregor saw it, and you’ll see the way forward with staff rather than having to play the school-master.

Thanks again


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   

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Updated on: 18 February, 2011

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