Home Thinking Aloud Punishment In The Workplace: When, Why, And How?

Punishment In The Workplace: When, Why, And How?



By Mackenzie Kyle, author of “The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace

The more time that has passed between today and your birth year, the greater the probability that you came of age in an environment where ‘punishment’ (sometimes know as ‘negative consequences’) was considered an accepted management tool. I’m not that old (at least in my own mind), but in my earliest years of elementary school the strap was still an option for teachers who were particularly unhappy with your behaviour. Granted, I never actually saw it used, but we heard stories, and the threat of it hung in the air. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, had one in her desk as part of her standard equipment along with a red pen and a pencil sharpener.

Fast forward a few decades and we find ourselves in what appears to be a very different environment. We hear complaints from ‘older’ people (including individuals born in close proximity to my own birth year) about how the ‘younger’ generation has been raised to believe that everything they do is wonderful, ribbons are handed out simply for showing up, and no one has to experience negative consequences anymore. The complaints stem from the idea that a lack of unpleasant consequences (or punishment) is not a good thing because in the so-called ‘real world’, negative consequences for doing the wrong thing abound (cynics would say they can also occur for doing the right thing, but that’s a subject for a later time.)

Offsetting this perspective is a significant amount of research and in-the-field experience with applying (both systematically and haphazardly) the general principles of Behaviour Management. This experience shows some pretty clear indication that the use of punishment is generally NOT the best way to create a motivated team, or to teach your toddler how to read. When talking about punishment, people conjure images of Dickensian era children working in factories and getting beaten when they fail to meet quota and think ‘Well, Duh! No rocket science here, right? Punishment is bad, the older generation is losing it, and we should move on.’

Like everything in life, it’s not quite that simple, and to be effective in managing teams, it pays to have a better understanding of some of the concepts around punishment.

The first point to consider is that punishment isn’t inherently bad. It’s also not inherently good either. It’s not a concept that implies the application of values at all. Simply put, punishment is anything an individual finds unpleasant. And here’s the really important part: it’s relative to the specific individual. Different people find different things punishing, in the same way that different people find different things rewarding. Though many of us might find getting strapped in the third grade to be punishing, that wasn’t the case with my brother. He didn’t really care one way or the other, and in fact he found getting strapped provided him with pretty good feedback on how much he’d managed to disrupt his class and irritate the teacher – things that he found very reinforcing. Getting the strap was a non-event for him.

In the workplace, some team members might find public recognition for something positive they’ve done to be very rewarding. I’ve worked with others who absolutely loathe being singled out of the crowd. To them, being recognized in front of their peers is the most painful thing in the world, and they’ll go out of their way to avoid it at all costs. This includes NOT performing at their best in order to stay under the radar, and to avoid what to them is punishment.

The second consideration is that not only does punishment have its place in the universe of the motivated and effective team, we use it all the time, whether we recognize it or not.

Let’s break that into two pieces. What do I mean that punishment has its place? In every workplace there are some behaviours that simply cannot be tolerated, either because they threaten the safety and well being of the team or the customers, or because they threaten the well being of the organization itself. These actions cannot occur at all, or if they do occur, cannot be tolerated a second time. Examples of this include failure to wear safety equipment like hard hats and steel toed boots on a construction site, sexual harassment or abusive behaviour toward fellow team members or customers, and fraud or theft or other illegal activities. Any behaviour that we deem to be unacceptable should result in a negative consequence, if we want to avoid it, or ensure it doesn’t occur again. In that context, we can’t have a workplace, or really any societal situation, without the existence or threat of punishment.

The problem is we often find that the existence or threat of punishment can be a pretty decent motivator, at least in the short term. In many work or life situations we find ourselves in a position of trying to get our team to achieve a certain minimum standard of behaviour – whether it’s a sales target, completing the annual performance review, or processing customer invoices in a timely fashion.   We discover over the course of our lives that threatening a negative consequence if we don’t achieve to a certain level has the result of getting people to get to that minimum level, whether it’s getting your teenage son to put his dishes in the dishwasher, or getting the last person out of the office to set the alarm. The existence of a negative consequence results in people acting in such a way to avoid that negative consequence.

The technique works, and we see it employed regularly. Perhaps the most common example of this can be described best as ‘nagging’. Whether your son is putting his dishes in the dishwasher to avoid you yelling at him, or an employee is begrudgingly completing his performance review to avoid the boss calling them into his or her office, we see people engaging in behaviours to avoid that negative consequence.

There are a few reasons we rely heavily on the use of negative reinforcement or avoidance instead of rewards and positive reinforcement. The first (and, I believe, the most powerful) is that implementing negative reinforcement is usually easier, at least in the short run. And all we have to do to understand this is to return to what I just said about positive reinforcement or rewards being the most powerful way to increase or maintain a behaviour.

Say what? Providing the threat of punishment is more reinforcing than providing something positive? Yes, but not necessarily in the way you might think. What we see in the workplace is that the people trying to drive more of a particular behaviour action can usually get a more immediate response (and therefore positive consequences for themselves) out of threatening punishment rather than providing a reward.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re responsible for safety for a small crew of people who work on construction. One of the most common injuries sustained by this group are head and foot injuries. Their heads get bonked when people working above them drop hammers, saws, lunch boxes and stale Twinkies, and as they’re stumbling around in pain, they stub their toes, have stacks of planks dropped on their feet, or step on exposed nails or screws. So what do you do? Among other things, you require the people on your crew to wear hard hats and safety shoes. You should probably also ban Twinkie consumption, but that might be very unpopular.

But here’s the problem: hard hats are uncomfortable, they’re hot in the summertime, they restrict your hearing and, most importantly, they give you severe and protracted hat-head of the worst kind. Safety shoes have similar issues. They’re also hot, and heavy, and extremely unstylin’.

Naturally, we would like to believe that any rational person would decide that the minor discomforts associated with wearing hard hats and safety shoes would be more than offset by the positives of preventing concussions and crushed feet. We also tend to think that anyone could work this out for themselves, but we take no chances and we explain to our crew about the bad things that happen if we don’t wear our safety equipment. Whether they think about it explicitly or not, we then expect that each of our crew members will (naturally) find the positive reinforcement associated with wearing the safety equipment to more than compensate for the discomfort.

There are (at least) two elements at play here. One is that we are relying on negative reinforcement, whether we know it or not. We want people to avoid a negative consequence (concussion, broken toes) and wear the safety equipment. And secondly, for many people, the negative consequence prevented won’t be enough to drive the behaviour. For these people, the punishment of a hot head, sweaty feet, and bad hair is sufficient deterrence such that they won’t wear the hat and the shoes. Worse still they don’t get the bonk on the head or the crushed foot consequence often enough to make it a ‘real’ threat. But they do get hat head and sweaty every single time they wear the safety equipment. This immediate and certain reward of no hat-head is far stronger than the uncertain future bad consequence of a concussion.

So what do we do? Ideally we figure out a positive and immediate consequence for wearing the safety equipment. Rewards are, after all, the best way to increase or maintain a behaviour. But realistically, just how do you do that? Chip over here spends $100 a week on his retro Pulp Fiction-inspired Flock-of-Seagulls hair cut. How are you supposed to reward him for squishing it down every day?

And now the principles operate on us, the manager. If it’s hard to find a way to reward the right behaviour, the most common thing is to figure out how to insert our own negative consequence into the equation to prevent the behaviour we don’t want. Then we tell the crew explicitly what that negative consequence or punishment will be – they will get written up for a workplace violation, or they will get yelled at, or they won’t be allowed on-site if they aren’t wearing their equipment and will be sent home unpaid.

In other words, we set up a very clear negative consequence for them not engaging in the behaviour we want, and by giving them that negative consequence, we set up a future where they’ll start wearing their safety equipment to avoid the negative consequence. We also usually hope like hell we won’t have to actually provide the punishment.

Why do we (the manager) do this? It’s actually pretty simple. The result of doing it is immediate (to us) and reinforcing: we dish out the threat of punishment (or actual punishment) now, and we get the behaviour we want. We’re in the cycle that is the MOST powerful in terms of maintaining or increasing a behaviour: immediate, positive consequences to us.

But is this so bad? If it creates the behaviour we want, what’s so terrible about leveraging negative reinforcement and avoidance?

As it turns out, there are downsides to the world of punishment and avoidance behaviour. One of the most important things to understand about punishment is that in order to be effective, it has to be used very sparingly. It turns out it loses its effectiveness when applied too often. What people find punishing can quickly become an inconvenience, or worse still, an irritation. If you delve deeper into things, it appears that the fear of punishment (and in some cases the unknowns around just how bad the punishment might be) holds most of the power with punishment. When a person actually experiences the punishment, the unknown (and associated fear) is removed, and the situation changes. My brother and the strap is a good example of this. It is sort of analogous to being a person who likes to drive fast, and who is also so rich that they don’t care about having to pay speeding tickets.

The use of punishment can also create resentment, anger, and generally negative feelings, leading to unpredictable, but generally undesirable behaviour. This resentment can be seen in the workplace all the time when a manager tries to get a team member to ‘do the right thing’ (like completing their annual review forms), with the threat of punishment as a lever. Our team members tend to think of themselves as adults, capable of making a judgement about what is the right thing to do, and resent us for (from their perspective) treating them like children. Disobeying the boss can be a deliberate act of defiance, often in big part to show the boss just how the threat of punishment makes them feel.

Here’s another interesting thought: there are very, very few environments where you have such complete control over a group of people that they can’t circumvent any attempt at punishment (note that this includes everything up to and including quitting a job.) When your kids are 3 years old, when you’re a sergeant major running a military boot camp, or when you’re the coach of a kids’ sports team – these might be situations where you have, relatively speaking, more control, but this is not the work situation in which most of us find ourselves.

All of this applies to punishment, but the threat of punishment suffers from the same problems. Eventually the threat wears off, people start to resent the constant threatening, and they may start engaging in unexpected and non-productive behaviours as a result. At some point they don’t believe that you’re going to implement the punishment. And if you do punish, well, then you’ve got all of the problems noted above.

Don’t get me wrong – the threat of something punishing will drive us to engage in a certain amount of behaviour. But the context and the mindset we bring to avoidance behaviour is not the most positive. For those of you who have one (or more), just ask your teenager how much they enjoying hearing you nag them to put their dishes in the dishwasher. Or clean up their room. Or put their phones away at the dinner table.

Which is a bit of a segue to a second consideration: avoidance behaviour and negative reinforcement create an environment where everyone is encouraged to perform and behave to a certain minimum standard. The bar is set at a minimally acceptable height, and there is absolutely no incentive to go beyond that minimum.

People being people, and all of us being constrained by certain rules around why we do what we do, we engage in a given behaviour until we reach the minimum point that avoids the negative consequence, and then we stop and go off and do something that we find rewarding. We don’t go above and beyond in cleaning our room, or keeping our time sheets up to date, or driving only at the exact posted speed limit because….well, why would we? Once bad consequences have been avoided, where’s the incentive to keep on doing the behaviour? And in our world, people can and will find a behaviour that comes with a direct reward. Because rewards are the most powerful way to drive behaviour. Avoidance is number 2. Given a choice, we will always go for number 1.

If you want to achieve at the highest level, if you want to make the upside unlimited or nearly so, if you don’t want to put a cap on people’s performance, you have to find a way to reward them for it. If you need a minimum standard, negative reinforcement can get you there, but you’re creating a ceiling.

If you’re worried your children will experiment with drugs and do harm to themselves, can it be effective to try and scare the crap out of them by showing them every overdose story about teenagers taking what they thought was ecstasy at a party? Absolutely. If there is the possibility of a loss of life in a workplace accident if certain safety protocols aren’t followed, can it be helpful to provide harsh and unpleasant consequences for team members who don’t follow those protocols. Yes. But is using negative reinforcement and avoidance the way to achieve great things? No, it is not.



Mackenzie Kyle is the Regional Managing Partner for MNP, a national Consulting and Accounting firm and the author of “The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace