The Perils of Punishment

“Do it, or else!” It sounds simple and, in some ways, compelling for wannabe leaders. “Why do I need to be a “babysitter” and listen to all the whining and moaning? My people should just do what I tell them or suffer the consequences.” On the surface, this seems easy but as with many simple-minded ideas, the truth is much more complicated. We all know that punishment works. Under certain conditions, punishing unwanted behavior will reduce or eliminate it. Or, at least, make it invisible. What punishment teaches is how to avoid punishment. One way to avoid being punished for a certain behavior is to stop behaving that way. So, if you are punished for spending work time on facebook, you could stop spending time on facebook during working hours. There are, of course, other ways to avoid punishment. You could become more clever about your facebook usage – camouflage it in some way. Learn to minimize the screen when you hear footsteps, keep your office door closed, use the internet only in the common computer room (if computer use is monitored), etc. Or, you could lie about it. “I was using facebook for find experts on the new process. It was strictly work related.” You could plead ignorance. “You mean it’s not O.K. to be on facebook during working hours? I’m shocked.” You could beg forgiveness. “It was just this one time. It will never happen again. Please, don’t hurt me.” None of those responses, of course, are what the leader is hoping for.

employee punishment leadership trainingAlso, for punishment to work, certain conditions must be present. The individual being punished must: feel the punishment is aversive (produces more pain than giving up the behavior), contingent (a direct result of the behavior – not arbitrary), certain (you know you will be caught and that the punishment will be enforced). In most organizations, these conditions are often ignored. Even worse, everyone is punished for the bad behavior of one person. (Facebook is banned for everyone because one person abused it). I am not saying that punishment is always wrong. If an employee lies, cheats, or steals punishment is certainly appropriate. As a way of managing and trying to change behavior, however, punishment is not very useful or practical. An over reliance on punishment can produce a lot of unwanted results. Some of the risks include:

•    Secrecy. Team members become more cautious about what they do and say. They withhold information that they fear may be used against them. This effect is exaggerated in environments where people believe that managers often use punishment inappropriately. Vendettas. Power grabs. Arbitrarily. Etc.
•    Fear. All of the risks associated with fear and the lack of trust in organizations are amplified when punishment is over used. Poor motivation. Just getting by.
•    Sabotage. The more managers rely on punishment to control behavior, the more likely it becomes that employees seek ways to undermine organizational goals. Within the limits of the policy, they will avoid doing anything that will help or support their “leaders.” Sometimes, this can be taking a break right in the middle of an important project because, “That’s what the contract says.” Or, it can be more subtle, just doing what’s absolutely required and not an ounce more. It might result in malicious obedience. That is, “I will do exactly what you told me to do even though I know it will cause all kinds of problems.” It can even be unintentional. People just don’t work as hard or as diligently because their hearts aren’t in it.
•    Stagnation. If your organization needs a little creativity, punishment is a sure way to discourage it. The only creativity you will see will be inventing new ways of getting out of work. No matter what the advocates of “tough” leadership tell you, there is not enough power in the world to get a single creative idea from a person. Need a new idea to solve a tough organizational problem? Too bad! “I just can’t think of a thing.”
•    Mediocrity. The only way to achieve excellence is if team members want to take you there. If everyone is waiting to see, “Who is going to get it next?” and “How do I make sure it isn’t me?” there will be little discretionary effort left over to apply to organizational goals. “Why bother? They’ll just get me on some technicality later on.”
•    Poor teamwork. Employees become reluctant to do anything to support other team members when everyone is looking out for themselves. It is just too dangerous.
•    Poor motivation. Punishment, especially when used capriciously or arbitrarily or in excess, tends to reduce intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the kind you get when people actually want to do good work and don’t need a lot of supervision. The more you rely on punitive measures to get people to work, the more supervision you will need.
•    Breeds hostility. When poorly used, punishment leads to a dispirited and sluggish workforce that becomes a highly complex and puzzling challenge for leaders.

In short, punishment should be used very sparingly and carefully. Those with the power to punish should develop a thorough understanding of the nature of punishment, the conditions under which it can be used effectively, and most of all, the risks of not using it wisely. Like many concepts that seem simple on the surface, the effective use of punishment is a lot more complicated that it initially seems. Punishment relies heavily on the perception of the individuals being punished. To be effective, even in its limited legitimate use of reducing or eliminating unwanted behavior, those being punished must view the punishment as unwanted. They must believe it is the direct result of their behavior, not arbitrary and be certain that if they repeat the behavior, the punishment will occur right away. These perceptions can vary considerably among team members. For instance, some see parking tickets as a small price to pay for a good parking spot while others may work hard to avoid such a penalty. Some students may see a suspension as a terrible, embarrassing event but others view it as an unanticipated vacation. One employee may see a disciplinary action for tardiness as legitimate (“I was late a couple of times. I probably deserve it.”) but others see it as absolutely arbitrary (“I’m certainly not the only one who is late around here. My supervisor is late all the time.”). Some may fear being caught and chastised while others believe they are much too smart to get caught. They may even see it as a game and enjoy the “sport.”

The organization’s leadership training should emphasize the opposite approach for managers, supervisors and others in leadership roles. Rather than trying to make people experts on when and how to punish, it is more productive and practical to teach them how to create positive, trustworthy, creative environments in which punishment becomes less and less important. Effective organizations spend their time building good relationships with team members. They encourage cooperative, collaborative behavior and believe in the basic, intrinsic motivation of their people. Effective leadership training will emphasize the skills that help leaders create that kind of environment. They will learn how to listen, how to confront unacceptable behaviors in non-punitive ways and how to resolve conflicts in such a way that no one has to feel they have given up a fundamental need. Learning to lead effectively is hard work but it is a lot more satisfying and, in the longer term, simpler than trying to control the behavior of every team member, especially by trying to punish every action that you see as undesirable.

So, do what I tell you or I’ll slap you around. Guess I showed you, huh?

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