Punishment: 1 of 2 Ways to Make Behavior Disappear

If you’re a parent, pet owner or supervisor, you understand that sometimes you need to use punishment. Before you get your hackles get up, I don’t mean corporal punishment like a spanking or a caning. However, depending on which state you live in, you might still be allowed to spank your children. And you might be tempted to smack your dog’s bum to get his attention when he’s eating one of your shoes. I don’t even want to think about what kind of job you’d have that would encourages spankings at work…

Anyway, let me define punishment. Punishment is a consequence that is delivered after a behavior where the person either gets what he or she doesn’t want / like, or the person loses what he or she does like. The purpose of punishment is to stop behavior quickly.

So…yeah, sometimes you have to use punishment.

When my son was just starting to crawl and reach for things, I recall that he put his tiny little fingers towards a power outlet that I forgot to cover after vacuuming. I yelled, “DON’T!” while clapping my hands together loudly. The scream and loud clap startled my boy who immediately started crying. But if I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing. By punishing my boy, I scared him half to death which still seems like a better option that watching him stick his tiny finger into the outlet and being charred 100% to death.

The purpose of punishment isn’t to make the other person feel good. Remember, the purpose of punishment is to stop an undesired behavior. So, yes, if you manage people, sometimes punishment is required.

Let’s say Sally Sue has begun showing up late for work. Initially, she was 5 minutes tardy. You didn’t say anything figuring she may have had a traffic delay.

But it wasn’t a one-time thing. The next day she was late again. The next day, she was 7 minutes late. Yesterday, she didn’t clock in until 10 minutes past the start of her shift. And this morning, you saw Sally Sue pulling into the parking lot 15 minutes late, and she didn’t begin to produce work for 25 minutes!

As her manager, you need to redirect Sally Sue’s attention. Punishment gets attention. So you spank her…I mean, you deliver a negative consequence like docking her pay, issuing a verbal or written warning, or perhaps suspending her without pay.

Problem solved, right?

Sadly, no. The problem may not necessarily be solved.

Punishment does stop behavior. And that’s good. But punishment does not dictate which behaviors will take the place of the undesirable ones. Think in term of the alcoholic who quits drinking. That’s good, right? Yes! But instead of drinking, the person now takes pills by the handful. And that’s bad.

So now Sally Sue shows up for work on time each day. But she’s taking extra time on her breaks and lunch. And she’s sneaking out early. Oh, and she bad-mouths you for being an ogre to anyone who will listen.

And here’s an even bigger limitation of using punishment frequently: it puts the focus on the wrong things. Every time you spend effort telling your children, your pets or your employees what NOT TO DO, you’re emphasizing the world of DON’Ts instead of the world of DOs. And as a manager, don’t you pay people to DO things? I mean, you don’t pay people to NOT DO things.

Like “Hey Sally Sue, for not being late, here’s your paycheck!”

More likely, you pay Sally Sue for what she accomplishes while she is at work and not for the bad or undesirable activities she avoided.

Punishment stops behavior quickly. That’s why parents and leaders use it. But don’t get too good at it. As parents and leaders, your role is to encourage people to do the right, desirable actions. And punishment is inadequate for teaching new, appropriate behaviors.

Tomorrow, the other way to stop behaviors: Extinction!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *