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9 Oct 2014

Punishment’s Purifying Effect in the Workplace

OZA No 461 (Punishment's Purifying Effect in the Workplace)While many won’t go through the mental moral gymnastics and anguish of Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s protagonist in Crime and Punishment, for their wrongs in the workplace, punishments help employees’ feel better about their employers and themselves, emotionally purifying them. Often though, we’re too focused on extracting retribution or Pavlovian behavioral change, or simply too ignorant or disbelieving to reap these benefits for employers and employees.

Even though we’ve known atonement’s benefits for almost two millennia, Brock Bastian’s (The University of Queensland) work is a rare scientific examination (Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh: The guilt reducing effect of pain) (“The Masochism Tango” [The Economist, February 5, 2011]). In the workplace, application is deceivingly very simple and effective. Once employees acknowledge that they’ve wronged and feel badly, we do two things:

  1. Avoid judgment
  2. Ask, “What do you want to do about it?”

What’s deceiving is that it’s extremely easy to fall into the traditional approach of retribution and behavioral change. This certainly happens when we don’t feel the punishment is enough or don’t feel we’ve ensured change by issuing threats such as, “If this happens again . . .” At this juncture saying something like, “I also want you to know that I don’t see this wrong reflecting upon you as a person.” Disappointing us then becomes a deterrent while subtly hinting they can’t expect this from everyone. People will strive to preserve the good we see in them.

Therefore, punishment’s purification works when people punish themselves, we don’t judge them, and we don’t treat them as behavioral projects. We might not satisfy our base retributive instincts, but we avoid planting resentment’s seeds and return pleased, productive employees to work who have created their own motivation to change.



Additional readings and research citing this work by Brock Bastian and his colleagues Jolanda Jetten and Fabio Fasoli.

2 Responses

  1. As is most often the case, the best happens for everyone when there is a leader at the helm and not a manager. Expecting honest efforts and the occasional mistakes that can’t be eliminated, aligned with values, when dealing with goals is the key! A commonly accepted sense of responsibility and purpose …

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, you are so right, John. The technique in this post is very deceptively simple. As leaders our orientation is rooted in being authoritarian and in control. Even the financial markets expect this of CEO’s. Our emotions often get the best of us in these situations, making them worse. Still, great leaders can solve many ills.

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