When you can’t discipline in private

Photo of young girl in trouble with motherPraise publicly, discipline privately. A great mantra for both leaders and parents! But, what about those times when discipline is called for and there is no privacy to be found? Perhaps it’s because your child made a driving mistake and you want to point it out immediately, even though a best friend is in the back seat. Or, you pull aside an employee to give him feedback in private, but his team members know exactly what’s happening. While you try to deliver the message in a thoughtful, respectful way, you’re still doing it in front of their peers or friends. It can be humiliating!

Even worse, imagine how humiliated you’d feel in this scenario:

You’re attending a parent education talk at a local school, along with hundreds of other parents.

About half-way through the talk, the host interrupts the speaker to announce that there is a dog locked in a car, the windows are rolled up, and the police are going to break the window if the owner doesn’t open up the car in the next 10 minutes. You gasp as you realize it’s your car, and you completely forgot that your dog hopped in the backseat when you left the house that morning. 

You’re going to have to stand up, make your way past dozens of parents sitting in your row, deal with the stares from everyone in the auditorium, and run to the nearest door. 

You’re going to feel humiliated.

But then, a miracle happens. Before you even stand up, the speaker asks everyone to stand, stretch, and say hello to the person in the next seat. He causes a diversion, letting you deal with your mistake without being the subject of everyone’s stares. In your mind, he just became the most gracious person in the world. 

While this person wasn’t me, I was at that talk. Boy, was I impressed that the speaker, Shawn Achor, thought of doing this. Not that he was disciplining her, but hundreds of people were about to cast judgement. He created privacy for that parent in the crowded auditorium. It was the perfect thing to do.

Sure, we should try to wait until we have privacy to discipline, but it’s not always an option. Have you created privacy when you’ve needed to, as a parent or a leader? I’d like to hear your ideas!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

8 thoughts on “When you can’t discipline in private

  1. My mother had a key phrase. “And then there is that”. When she said it I knew that she was bringing my attention to a misstep in the moment which we would mean that we would later discuss it in private. The words meant little to nothing but as soon as I heard them (mostly in front of my friends) I knew that I was crossing the line (as kids tend to do in public situations) and to back off.

    I never got out of one of those talks later, either. And I always respected that she didn’t call me out in front of my friends so I was more willing to listen. Well…listen as much as any teenager can. 😉

  2. Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing it. A humiliated employee is a resentful employee. The most common technique I have seen (and I have used it myself myself) is to divert the conversation to another point (if this is a public meeting, and someone goofed up and have to be immediately taken out of the conversation) and say to the group something along the lines of (“I actually want to discuss X in more detail today rather than Y because …. Mary/Bob why don’t you and I talk about Y in more detail afterwards, I will give you a call). This technique works if there is a slight diversion X, but does not work if there is no diversion because everyone in the group will know that Mary/Bob will be scolded. Your example is, what I will call out-of-context diversion which works extremely well. My example is an in-context diversion, which may or may not always work.

    1. It’s interesting to think about diversions being in-context or out-of-context. Do you think in-context diversions work best if they are genuine vs contrived? This is what my instinct tells me.

      1. I would agree. In my experience, people do detect whether someone is really helping them save face or you are summoned to the principle’s office afterwards. Genuine diversion gets respect from all participants.

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