The False Allure of Punishment

By on April 19, 2018
The False Allure of Punishment

More than a couple of years ago when I was in Air Force Flight Training I had a flight instructor by the name of Frank who believed that the best way to get student pilots to do what they had to do was to scream at them. “Idiot” “Stupid” “SOB” were among the variety of terms he used when critiquing our flying. Frank’s methods didn’t work with me; in fact, they didn’t work with a lot of his students. I was within a week or so of washing out of flight training when our squadron commander had me transferred to another instructor pilot.

What a difference! My instructor’s nickname was “Pappy” and his training techniques were the polar opposites of Frank’s. Pappy’s techniques were simple to describe. Give positive feedback. Demonstrate trust. Show confidence in his students’ ability to fly. Under Pappy’s guidance I soloed in a week and from that point forward completing flight training and earning the “wings” of an Air Force Pilot went smoothly.

And what was the impact of these two very different training methods? A significant number of Frank’s student pilots flunked out of flight training. On the other hand, virtually all of Pappy’s students completed flight training successfully.

The “punish ‘em when they’re not doing the right thing” mentality exists in far too many organizations despite the fact that it is a demonstrably ineffective way of driving improved performance. Given the ineffectiveness of the “punish ‘em” method, why does it persist in so many work environments?

I think there are three reasons for punishment being such an alluring option.

First, it’s simple. It doesn’t require much thought to dish it out.

Second, it has magical qualities. It creates the illusion that a problem has been solved.

Third, it relieves tension. People dishing it out often feel better after they’ve delivered it.

Punishment takes many different forms. Some are obvious, like a plant manager I observed yelling at an employee, “You dumb SOB, why did I ever hire you?” Or a plant engineer who screamed at an employee after the employee had offered a suggestion on how to fix a piece of equipment, “Shut up! I don’t pay you to think, I pay you to work.

Others forms of punishment are more subtle and possibly even more destructive than those that are obvious, like pretending to listen to an employee, saying “That’s a great idea, John” and then walking away and forgetting what John said. These forms of punishment have even more impact than the obvious ones. They communicate loud and clear “We don’t respect your ability to think” and “You’re not really important to our organization.”

So what are the fatal flaws of the “punish ‘em” method of trying to improve performance?

First, it destroys employee self-confidence. My first flight instructor, Frank, did a superb job of making his students think that they were too stupid to ever become Air Force pilots. Since self-confidence is one of the key pillars of good performance, diminishing it is very destructive.

Second, it drives employees to detach themselves emotionally from the organization. They no longer say “we” when referring to the company, instead it’s “they.” And when this happens, their relationship with the company has become adversarial. Their main concern is not in any way related to improving performance, it’s about avoiding punishment.

Third, it moves the focus toward people and away from work processes. Distrust reigns. Employees retreat into work silos. Work flow is fragmented. Work processes are not improved, in fact, they often degrade. More and more waste is created.

Can a toxic work environment be transformed?

Absolutely. Here are some steps to take that can make this happen.

1. The organization’s leadership team has to agree with the following:

  • Maintaining the status quo will not result in long term success.
  • Things are the way they are because of the way we think, as Einstein reminds us.
  • To change the way things are we have to change the way we think.
  • If we’re going to change the way we think, we need to follow the advice of Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of Lean manufacturing, who said, “It’s easier to act your way to a new way of thinking, than to think your way to a new way of acting.”
  • We need to act in new ways.
  • We must commit to making trust, candor and respect the defining characteristics of our company.

2. Here are some first steps that the Leadership team can take to drive very positive change in their organization:

  • Regularly go to where value-creating work happens, where the product is made or the service delivered.
  • Talk with employees in these areas, soliciting their input on ways of improving work processes. Let them know that they’re being listened to, that their ideas are needed, and that their thinking is respected. The focus of these discussions should always be on facts, not feelings, as Taiichi Ohno has also taught us.
  • Let employees know about the company’s sales, productivity, and financial performance. Doing this says to employees, “We trust you”. As Warren G. Bennis, widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies, has taught us, “Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for an organization to work.”
  • During periods of production slow down, don’t lay off employees. Instead use this time to provide training for employees, to give employees the opportunity to think about ways to improve work processes, to experiment with new methods, in short to make full use of their knowledge and creativity to make the organization more productive.

This is hardly a definitive list of what needs to happen to rid the organization of the residue of a “punish ‘em” mentality but these steps will get things moving in the right direction.

It’s amazing how companies that are seen as being at the forefront of change still punish workers for things over which they have no control. Tesla, for example, recently laid off workers with no pay (i.e. punished them) when they had to halt production of Model 3 cars. It’s ironic that this is happening in a plant previously occupied by New United Motors Manufacturing, known as NUMMI, a joint venture of Toyota and GM in Fremont, CA. I did training at NUMMI in 1986 during a time when production was halted. No NUMMI workers were laid off. Instead they came to work, got paid, were given additional training, and, also, time to think about ways to improve work processes. What did it say to NUMMI workers when they were treated this way? It said loud and that they were highly valued members of the NUMMI team. And what did Elon Musk’s treatment of his workers say to them? You’re probably not as important as the robots in my plant.

Frank, my first flight instructor, could have changed but didn’t. As a result he failed in his primary mission by stubbornly holding onto punishment as a way of driving improved performance. On the other hand, Pappy knew that improving performance depended upon making student pilots more confident, creating within them the belief that they could in fact succeed.

Pappy type leaders create champions. Frank types don’t. A transition from being a Frank to being a Pappy isn’t necessarily easy but it is possible. And when this happens, wow, what results it drives!

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of well tested and cost effective training and coaching resources that can help drive remarkable changes in your organization. To find out more about these resources just call Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 or George Friesen at 314-303-0612. We’d greatly appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to review these resources. We think you’d find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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