The hot stove rule

The hot stove rule
Many years ago, I came across a very useful way of thinking about how best to achieve effective
discipline in organizations. I believe it was first introduced by Douglas McGregor (who is best
known for his ‘X’ and ‘Y’ Theories of management). McGregor called this approach “the (red)
hot stove rule”, because it uses the familiar characteristics of a red-hot stove to highlight four
guiding principles for practising discipline in organizations. This is usually related to
‘disciplinary action’ in the more limited sense. However, it works equally well in relation to the
wider notion of discipline that I have described above.
The attributes of effective discipline that the metaphor highlights are immediacy, forewarning,
consistency and impartiality, as outlined below:
• Immediacy
Characteristic: If you touch a hot stove, it burns you immediately, not some time later.
Implication for leadership practice: Conversations about performance should take place
immediately after the event that triggers them, not be left until later.
• Forewarning
Characteristic: As your hand approaches a hot stove, you can feel the heat; so you are
forewarned that if you touch it you will get burnt.
Implication for leadership practice: People must know in advance what performance and
behavioural standards are required of them. Performance conversations, and any disciplinary
measures that result, will be ineffective and dysfunctional if they appear to have been conjured
up out of thin air. A clear link needs to be made to recognised standards and prior warning given
that sanctions will be applied if certain conditions either are or are not met.
• Consistency
Characteristic: Whenever you touch a hot stove, it always burns you; it doesn’t burn you at some
times and not others.
Implication for leadership practice: For performance conversations and any resulting actions to
be effective, these must take place in a consistent fashion, not in an ad hoc way. If performance
shortfalls and/or behavioural issues elicit a response from a manager on some occasions and not
on others, this disconnect between words and actions will simply compound the problem.
• Impartiality
Chracteristic: Whoever touches the stove will be burnt. It is the act of touching the stove that
leads to the painful effect, not some characteristic of the person; and it doesn’t burn some people
and not others.
Implication for leadership practice: Effective and felt-fair performance conversations focus on
the act, not the individual. These are also carried out in an impartial way, not based upon
personality or position. Performance management, including any disciplinary action, will be
ineffective if it appears to be based upon ‘one rule for some and another rule for others’.
The above guiding principles help to put “discipline” and “performance management” in their
proper places – as aspects of ongoing, day-to-day leadership practice. Discipline and performance
will never improve if managerial action is limited to periodic set-piece meetings and formal
The “Hot Stove” Rule of Discipline
In a recent supervision class I learned of an interesting analogy between touching a hot stove and
applying positive, corrective discipline. The similarities are: immediacy, advance warning,
consistency, and impartiality.
1. A hot stove burns immediately. Likewise, discipline should be applied quickly after an
infraction. There should be no question in an employee’s mind as to cause and effect.
2. A hot stove radiates heat and gives a preliminary warning – so should discipline.
3. A hot stove always burns when touched. Likewise, discipline must be applied
4. A hot stove plays no favorites. Neither should discipline.
While I don’t directly supervise people anymore I still found this analogy useful. I am sure
anyone with kids has had to discipline them at some point. It would be ideal to avoid discipline
and we should work toward this but sometimes it is necessary. Are you impartial, immediate,
consistent, and do you give warning when discipline is needed. Just think of touching a hot stove
before you act.
The Red Hot Stove Rule
Without the continual support of the subordinates, no manager can get things done. But,
disciplinary action against a delinquent employee is painful and generates resentment on his part.
Hence, a question arises as to how to impose discipline without generating resentment? This is
possible through what Douglas McGregor called the “Red Hot Stove Rule”, which draws an
analogy between touching a hot stove and undergoing discipline.
According to the Red Hot Stove rule, disciplinary action should have the following
Burns immediately: If disciplinary action is to be taken, it must occur
immediately so the individual will understand the reason for it. With the passage of
time, people have the tendency to convince themselves that they are not at fault.
Provides warning: It is very important to provide advance warning that
punishment will follow unacceptable behavior. As you move closer to hot stove, you
are warned by its heat that you will be burned if you touch it.
Gives consistent punishment: Disciplinary action should also be consistent in that
everyone who performs the same act will be punished accordingly. As with a hot
stove, each person who touches it is burned the same.
Burns impersonally: Disciplinary action should be impersonal. There are no
favorites when this approach is followed.

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