Should We Punish People and Teach ‘Em a Lesson at Work?

Martin Nowak is a professor of biology and mathematics at Harvard. He was interviewed in the New Scientist recently and made the following comment about punishment:

“Many people feel that punishment is a good thing that it leads to human cooperation. So their idea is that unless you cooperate with me, I punish you. It might even cost me something to punish you, but I do it because I want to teach you a lesson. One cannot deny that punishment is an important component of human behavior, but I am skeptical about the idea that it’s a positive component.

I have analyzed the role of punishment using mathematics and experiments. I think that most uses of punishment are very much for selfish interests, such as defending your position in the group. Punishment leads to retaliation and vendettas. It’s very rare that punishment is used nobly.”

I am with Nowak on this, especially at work. Some people feel that punishment is necessary to show toughness in business. I think that’s a pile of manure and it is gratifying that scientists like Nowak have quantitative data to support the shortcomings of punishment. At work people make mistakes. We all do. Punishing them for that often is more for the benefit of the punisher, like Nowak, “for selfish interest.” (I’m not talking about extreme cases of disrespectful behavior where other employees need to be protected. In those cases where laws are broken or moral codes breached guidelines for punishment like dismissal are usually appropriate.)

Character Move: When people resist us or make mistakes at work, let’s take a deep breath and decide how to respond. Is our action punishment to “teach a lesson” or is our action intended to help sustainable learning? Punishment often includes but is not limited to: “the cold shoulder,” “the verbal attack/rebuke,” “the removal of some liberty,” etc.  A key constructive action is to allow the person resisting or making a mistake to assess the situation and develop the lessons learned. This is likely to be sincerely learning oriented and best for the one doing the learning.

Learning, not punishing, in the Triangle,


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