Punitive Policies: Desired Behaviors?

Do punitive policies produce the behaviors you desire?

The purpose of this blog is to explore the natural tendency we all possess by virtue of our humanity, the desire to punish. It’s natural to want to punish someone who we believe has wronged us. It’s also natural to want to use punishment as a way to get others to change their behavior. As natural as these tendencies are, they historically have not produced the desired result.


Years ago a religious CEO asked me whether his God was the God of punishment of the Old Testament or the God of love and mercy of the New Testament. At the time I didn’t have an answer for him.

Later I realized that the Old and New Testaments didn’t represent two different Gods. Instead, God is demonstrating two approaches for dealing with others. One approach is punitive, the other loving and encouraging.

To me, the purpose of contrasting both approaches was to show that punishment (fear) doesn’t produce desired behaviors; love and mercy do.

Punitive responses

As you know from personal experience, our response to punishment is typically anger, quickly followed by a desire to punish the punisher. When we are able to set anger aside, we realize just how ridiculous this response is. We realize that responding with punishment is likely to:

  • Escalate the dispute.
  • Encourage the original punisher to become even more severe in their enforcement of their rules, resulting in even more severe punishment.
  • Widen the divide between you making it increasingly difficult to find a reasonable solution.
  • Prevent the behavioral change you desire.

Collaborative response

Instead of attempting to punish, initiate an exploratory conversation in which you seek to discover the reason for the policy. There is almost always some legitimate rationale for the policy.

Once you’ve given the other side a fair hearing and acknowledged whatever legitimacy exists, you can point out the impact that their punishment has on you and others in your situation.

Let the person know that your initial reaction was to punish them for the punishment they inflicted and how that devolves into bitterness and little likelihood of finding a solution that is reasonable for both parties.

Finally, ask “How can we proceed from here to avoid this situation in the future?” Typically the person will, at this point, be in a collaborative state of mind and work with you to create a more effective way of dealing with the issue in the future. Everybody wins and your relationship with the person (organization) grows stronger.

For you

The next time you want to punish someone or some organization for a perceived slight, pause and let the emotion subside.

Then ask yourself “What behaviors do I want to see change? What can I do differently in the future to avoid this situation?” Remember that everyone involved contributes to the problem you’re facing including you. I take no pride in saying that I’ve contributed to every problem I’ve faced throughout my entire life. It’s a reality that I must own in order to avoid creating problems for myself in the future.

These questions “What behaviors do I want to see change? What can I do differently in the future to avoid this situation?” applies to all of your interactions with others…family, friends, colleagues, bosses, clients, vendors, on and on and on.

Punishment triggers the desire to retaliate. Retaliation escalates the problem. It spawns a spiral that takes all parties deeper and deeper into base instincts and dramatically reduces chances for a reasonable solution. It all too often destroys relationships.

Conversely, setting aside your desire to punish in favor of a way to produce the behaviors you desire not only produces these behaviors more quickly, it enables all parties to avoid the anger, frustration and bitterness punishment engenders.

For our kids

When you see your kids wanting to punish those they feel have wronged them, ask them “How would you respond if someone used that approach with you? Is that the result you want? If not, what result do you want? How do you get it?”

These questions have a couple of advantages. First, they take the emotion out of the situation. When the emotion wanes, the potential for better solutions rise.

Second, these questions help your kids clarify in their own minds what they really want and how to get it. As they see this process work for them time and time again, it’ll become the way they naturally respond to perceived wrongs…and they’ll be happier and more confident for it.

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, share your wisdom in a comment below.

If you’d like to enjoy great confidence, check out our Confidence Self-Study programs.

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2 Responses

  1. Cathy Sexton

    Dale, article well done and a tough topic to discuss. I love how you take a topic that most would not think to address and turn the whole thing into a positive teachable moment for each and everyone of us.

    • dfurtwengler

      Cathy, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for the encouraging words. Your words motivate me to keep exploring human behavior with an eye to how we can make life easier and more enjoyable for all of us.

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