Punitive. (adjective): serving for, concerned with, or inflicting punishment.

For thousands of years, taking punitive action against soldiers has been a common method of dealing with stuff ups. And for that same amount of time, soldiers have feared punishment for stuffing up. It’s a human condition, and our profession of arms is a (very) late adopter in reducing our reliance on punitive action to drive a change in behaviours.

I know those grumpy old types – I am one of them – are all thinking ‘what the hell? Punitive/disciplinary action works! People SHOULD be charged for stuffing up! Our business is deadly serious!’ Thanks, but no thanks Centurion. It’s time to fundamentally shift the ancient way we deal with stuff ups.

Firstly, let’s categorise stuff ups into two groups. Intentional stuff ups are where people deliberately break a rule, usually due to laziness or ill intent. Unintentional stuff ups are those ones that ALL of us crusty old types made time and time again as juniors. And we still unintentionally continue to make them.

Most of the time we got away with the unintentional stuff up, sometimes we didn’t. And when we didn’t, the good old punitive action would follow. And what did it achieve? Hmm, yeah, not much really. It usually just mucked around a bunch of people who were super busy and then had to deal with a Defence Force Discipline Act (DFDA) charge on top of that high workload.

So, let’s now take those two ‘stuff up’ groups and give them different names. Let’s call the unintentional stuff ups errors. Errors are things like mistakes, slips and lapses – perfectly human, and unintended. An expression of our human imperfections. So how should our leaders respond to these unintentional errors? Through appropriate re-training, counselling, or a myriad of other options to improve the individual. NOT by imposing a punitive response! Let’s reduce our resource wastage on punitive actions when a more elegant, thoughtful solution exists for reducing errors. Hell, it’ll probably even help our retention rates!

What about the intentional stuff up? ‘Charge them!’ I hear you say! The name for that intentional stuff up is a violation, and it’s distinctly different to an error. Individuals violate when they deliberately skirt around or break a rule and do the wrong thing. Violations are often motivated by laziness, personal gain, or just because they think they can get away with it. But to add complexity, some of our people also violate to achieve a positive end state when rules or guidance are unclear.

Yes, these are murky situations. But ask yourself, is charging somebody for a well-intentioned violation the best way ahead? It’s generally not. Like the error maker (all of us!), a pragmatic, resolution focussed approach is required to change those behaviours. You can bet your bottom dollar that the best way to treat a well-intentioned violation is not through punitive action.

In fact, the well-intentioned violator may have violated because of lack of process, guidance, or regulation, so let’s try and learn from these situations to prevent a recurrence.

We now only need to look at how we deal with the ill-intended violator, and the routine violator. These are the individuals who bring risk to the team. A ‘Just Culture’ tells us that punitive action is an appropriate response for these behaviours and reinforces the key theme of only taking punitive actions where absolutely necessary. Punitive action IS appropriate for ill-intended and routine violators and demonstrates that our organisation does not tolerate these behaviours.

What happens when we start responding to stuff ups with a more thoughtful response? Our people will start being more open and transparent about their errors and violations, which allows us to look at the risk and reduce it. This makes things better for all of us, from both a capability and safety perspective. And because they won’t fear punitive action, our people will be comfortable and confident in reporting their unintentional stuff up – be it an error or a violation. It will improve us as war fighters.

So, when that stuff up occurs at work or in the field, before you take that centurion-like mental short cut to punitive action, ask yourself, ‘do I want to be part of this laggard behaviour, where I punish somebody for an unintentional stuff up?’ Yeah, thought so. We’re much better than that. Let’s improve our response culture by dealing with errors and unintentional violations in a more reasoned, measured way.