In lieu of punishment

I learned a valuable lesson during my years as a leader in corporate America…punishment doesn’t work well.


The reaction to punishment can take several forms:

  • Defensiveness
  • Resentment (the punishment doesn’t fit the crime)
  • A desire to balance the scales (punish back…an escalating problem if there ever was one)



You can avoid the need for punishment if you structure your communication properly.

  1. Decide what you want to accomplish
  2. Determine whose help you need
  3. Create options, any of which are acceptable to you
  4. Let the other person choose
  5. Hold them accountable for their choices

This process replaces the “need” for punishment with a simple reminder that this is the choice the person made.  There is no need to punish; the result is what they chose for themselves.

That’s not to say that the person is going to be happy that you’re holding them accountable, but they are much less likely to experience the reactions outlined above.  It’s hard to argue with a choice you made.

Withholding praise

Another approach that works very well for me is withholding praise.

When a person performed according to expectation (using the avoidance approach outlined above), I congratulated them on their success.  If they blew the doors off with their performance, I expressed joy, excitement and lavished praise upon them.

In those instances when they didn’t meet expectations, I simply asked “What are you going to do next?”  I didn’t admonish them for their lackluster performance.  I didn’t criticize or denigrate them, ascribe motives to their lack of performance.  I simply asked “What’s next?”  They got the message that I wasn’t happy.  They knew that I expected better of them without having to say so…and all I did was withhold praise.

Of course if this behavior continued, which it rarely did, I’d have a conversation letting them know that their choices were leading them to the possibility of choosing other employment.

For our kids

What implications does this have for our kids?  This process works equally well with them.  You can avoid having to punish them when you allow them to make choices.

Of course their choices have consequences, but you’re able to legitimately frame your message in the context of the choices they made.  It isn’t you who made the choice, but the child.  If you begin this process with simple decisions at an early age and they experience what it’s like to live with their choices, they’ll make better decisions as they get older.

Similarly, if you normally praise them appropriately for what they do well, then withhold praise when you’re not happy with what they’ve done, you’ll quickly discover that they’ve gotten the message.

The one big difference between your kids and your employees is that you can’t fire them…as much as you might, at times, like to.  Take heart.  In the 17 years in corporate, I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times I fired an employee.  The vast majority responded well to the approaches I outlined above.

I believe that the reasons why they responded well are:

  • They knew I respected them and cared about them
  • It’s difficult for any of us to disappoint people who believe in us
  • They knew I had their best interests at heart… even when I was holding them accountable or withholding praise

Let’s lose the punishment mindset.  You and your kids, and your employees if you use these approaches at work, will enjoy healthier, happier, more productive relationships.  Enjoy!

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