Motivation with Punishment? – 7 Questions and Answers

I often get the question from leadership development program participants if people can be motivated by punishment. I thought it would make sense to put together a self-interview here to share my own experience as well as related thoughts coming from my leadership and psychology readings. You may or may not agree with my answers, and it is totally fine. The context I have chosen is adults at work.

Hey Tom, is it possible to achieve behavioural change with punishment or threatening people with punishment? 

Well, it is, but I prefer using the word consequence as apposed to punishment. Probably the possible consequences withhold angry people from punching others who disagree in the face, make people refrain from drunk driving or skipping workdays. Here, you need to know what consequence might follow that specific behaviour.

Is it effective to threaten people with consequences or punishments?

As I described above, it can sometimes be effective, but far from always. For example, despite the threat of punishment, you drink a couple of beers and drive home by back yards. Or slack off at work when your boss is off site. Some people cheat or play with the numbers to avoid being disqualified for the bonuses. I read a story in Dan Pink’s book, Drive about a nursery school where some parents kept coming late to pick up their kids. Management decided to sanction late pick-ups with a fine. From that point on, the number of instances started to grow and finally doubled. Earlier, parents regarded arriving on time as a case for conscience, now the option for being late was a service with a price tag. Therefore, in this situation, punishment resulted in a contrary effect.

What effect does punishment have on motivation?

Well, if we are talking about actually giving a punishment not just threatening people with it, there can be two reactions. The less typical one is that the person gets the message, makes a U-turn and behaves completely differently from the next day. Most of the time something else happens. The person completely loses motivation, his loyalty to the company plummets, he takes it personally, plans vengeance, tries to figure out a way to avoid the consequences, demotivates others by complaining constantly, and more often than not, blames something or someone else for the situation. And he may even be right. It is possible that other colleagues got away with the same behaviour earlier, or that he never received any feedback or prior notification. In these instances, the line manager also has responsibility for the unfavourable outcome.

Can you achieve a positive effect with such a negative approach?

Very seldom. If there is continuous communication and feedback from the manager, if they regularly discuss any problems that come up, there is no need to threaten or punish people. It may happen that someone just does not understand normal communication and only reacts to aggressive messages. Maybe he was socialised that way at previous workplaces. But I would like to underline that it is a rare exception, if you do your people management responsibilities properly. And yes, sometimes we need to say goodbye to people if they refuse to act on feedback and their behaviour negatively affects team morale and performance.

Can you actually motivate people with punishments?

I would say no. I have never seen that after being punished people would become more enthusiastic, motivated or more demanding of themselves in their jobs. Informing people of consequences can be used to remind people to abide by policies, regulations and norms.

What options are there for punishment at work?

There aren’t many. You can withhold premiums or bonuses, if company policies allow. Official written notifications can be issued. In my view, these are just steps towards finally letting people go, which is the biggest punishment at work. However, in today’s job market, most people can just walk over to a company next door without getting too excited about the situation.

What are the alternatives of using punishments?

The first and most important option is managing expectations properly. You should discuss what you expect from each other and what the rules of the game are in advance. If needed, you have to remind people again. When someone does not play by the rules, or does not deliver on his promises, immediate feedback is necessary. You also have to listen to the other person to understand what is behind the situation. Maybe you can accept the explanation. Managers often miss this opportunity for closing the loop shortly after they recognise a problem, as they prefer avoiding conflict. Later, when they are really fed up with the behaviour or faulty performance of the individual, they start overreacting. Instead, you should give instant feedback and follow up on improvements. If no change is observed after a couple of follow-up loops, consequences may be mentioned. But don’t regard this as motivation. If someone keeps ignoring feedback for a number of times, he is unlikely to ever become a strong performer or a good team member.

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