The Transformative Approach to "Punishment"

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on  Unsplash

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

I will never forget the look on my kids’ faces the first time they were served a summons to appear in court. They were about 9 and 10 years old. The letters addressed to them arrived in the mail. Somewhat excited and surprised that they had received official looking correspondence in the mail, they opened them and started reading: “You are hereby summoned to appear in…” That’s when they started to get a bit concerned. Bewildered by the idea that they would need to go to court, they handed me the letters, hoping that I could explain what was going on and whether there had been some sort of mistake. As it turned out, there hadn’t been any mistake at all.

I went on to read the summons. With a serious look on my face, I read out loud, “You are hereby summoned to appear in the Ghannad family court before the Honorable Amir Ghannad to answer for crimes you have committed so that the appropriate punishment can be administered.” Although they seemed a bit relieved that this was a family court, and not the kind of court they had seen on TV with judges and juries, they were still not sure why they had to go to court and what this was all about. I further explained to them that it had been brought to my attention that they had been committing crimes that warranted punishment, and that we would be getting together in five minutes to go over these crimes and figure out what kind of punishment was fair for each of them.

When the court convened, I began to explain to the wide-eyed defendants, whose minds were racing to figure out what they had done wrong, that there was a long list of accusations against them. It included, but was not limited to: doing their homework every day and getting good grades in school, keeping their rooms neat and clean, helping their mom out around the house, being nice to each other, and so on, along with more “crimes” specific to each defendant. Those were some pretty serious charges, so you can understand why it was in the interest of justice that they be “punished” for them. No good deed goes unpunished, they say, and I wanted to make sure my kids knew that was true!

By this time, I could see smiles emerging, perhaps because some of the things they were hoping wouldn’t be on that list weren’t mentioned. Then came my favorite part of the whole experience, and theirs too, I’m sure. I went on to let them know that, in the Ghannad family, these kinds of crimes do not go unnoticed and the proper punishment was about to be administered. The smiles morphed into giggles and ultimately laughter and celebration as I announced that their punishment for these crimes was that they were going to get a certain amount of money that they could spend at their favorite toy store, among other things. And I told them to let this be a lesson to them, because any future “crimes” would beget similar “punishments” in the future!

Many workplaces miss the mark when it comes to recognizing good performance.

This experience marked the birth of a cherished tradition in the Ghannad family—now known as The Ghannad Group—that has stood the test of time and is still practiced and appreciated to this very day. I have applied the principles behind this family tradition, sans the summons and fake court sessions, in my professional life and have always tried to be intentional about catching people doing something right and making sure that they knew it didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. I have found this practice to be invaluable in creating a healthy work environment where people had an abundance mentality rather than trying to get their fair share of the recognition at the expense of others. This practice, of recognizing and rewarding the positive as much or even more than we recognize and discourage the negative, is the most basic element of creating a High Commitment Culture as opposed to an ordinary culture that is focused on enforcing compliance compliance.

Most workplaces have well defined procedures for dealing with low performance, as well they should. As I mention in my book, The Transformative Leader, this is analogous to eliminating dissatisfiers. However, many workplaces miss the mark when it comes to recognizing good performance, which is analogous to adding motivators or incentives. We tend to take what people do right for granted and demand more, and when we don’t get their full commitment and enthusiasm, we administer a disciplinary or correctional process.

Don’t waste time killing the weeds when you could be feeding the grass.

We do this not realizing that while disciplinary action may be very effective at eliminating negative behaviors, it is completely useless when it comes to increasing positive behaviors, and can even be counterproductive if used in isolation, because it does not inspire anybody to go above and beyond the call of duty. We would have a much better return on our investment if we put more time and energy in trying to catch people doing the right thing than we do in trying to catch people doing the wrong thing. If we really want people to bring their full commitment and allow the organization to flourish, we must be prepared to give them far more recognition for their accomplishments than we do for their mistakes.

The fact is, a leader with an entitlement mentality will never truly earn people’s full commitment and discretionary effort. You can try to force them into bringing their hearts and minds to the workplace, but if you’re lucky, you will get no results—if you’re unlucky, it will backfire completely. It’s like taking your family on an expensive vacation and then getting frustrated when the kids don't seem to be enjoying themselves and laying down the law that everybody had better have fun and be happy or else! (I can tell you from experience that doesn’t work very well either!). What does work is genuine recognition and acknowledgement for what people have done and are doing right.

If we want to thrive and grow, in business or in life, we have to be intentional about focusing on, recognizing, and cultivating the positive.

When you start attempting this approach, it will feel weird and unnatural, because in many ways, it is supposed to. There is a good reason why we tend to focus on mistakes, negative behavior, crime and punishment, and that is because of something called “negativity bias.” Our brains are hardwired to prioritize our survival above all else, and negative or dangerous information is recognized as more salient because they represent threats to that survival. This is one reason why news is usually negative; because when things are going well, our brains don’t really care, but when things are going wrong, it’s time to get in action. The flaw of this approach is that it is actually flawless…as long as you only care about barely surviving and maintaining the status quo! But if we want to thrive and grow, in business or in life, we have to be intentional about focusing on, recognizing, and cultivating the positive, because we are not designed to do so automatically.

In case you have any doubts that this approach might work, consider that we intuitively know it to be true already in other areas of life. In life, whatever we focus on becomes more salient and powerful in our subjective experience, and consequently whatever we ignore atrophies and eventually disappears. Anyone who has ever interacted with kids can see an example of this. Because children crave attention even above and beyond any physical rewards, they will in fact continue in whatever behavior gives them the most attention, good or bad. One of the best ways to discourage a child from negative behavior is actually to completely ignore them (within reason) when they engage in that behavior, and instead give them attention when they engage in positive behavior. Or as I like to say, “Don’t waste time killing the weeds when you can be feeding the grass.”

Adults, like children, also crave attention and acknowledgement from others, and while we all prefer positive attention, we will naturally settle for any attention rather than no attention. So, if the only time people are given attention and recognition is when they are being put through disciplinary action, we shouldn’t be surprised that more people are incentivized to engage in negative behaviors than positive ones. (In fact, many criminals have notoriety alone as one of their primary aims). This approach, of ignoring what we don’t want and focusing on what we do want, even forms the basis for how our brains work and how we are able to learn. The way that neuroplasticity works is that by focusing on or repeating something, the neural pathways involved become stronger and faster, while ignoring a behavior or practice makes those same pathways weaker and slower. That is a much deeper topic than we have time for here, but rest assured that this approach is effective no matter the time or place. As it was expressed in Hexagram 43 of the I Ching from ancient China, “The best way to strive against the bad is to make energetic progress in the good.”

Here are a few thoughts to consider as you evaluate any tweaks you may want to make in your approach to recognition in the workplace:

·         Treat your team as volunteers. This is a powerful way to quickly shift your mindset from one of entitlement to one of appreciation. Take on the mentality that the people on your team are volunteers. They don’t have to be there, but they choose to. (Technically, this is true; they choose to come to work every day and they could choose to work elsewhere). Their paychecks only compensate them for a fraction of the potential value they can bring to the team. They are choosing to bring the rest on a voluntary basis and they will continue to do so as long as they feel it is being appreciated. Really get in touch with the fact that your team members and/or employees don’t owe you anything, that they freely choose to offer their value to you and the organization, and you will be on your way to truly recognizing the magnitude of their contributions.

·         Intrinsic rewards work. Don’t fall back on solely relying on extrinsic rewards as a way to acknowledge people. Sure, monetary rewards are appreciated, but they will eventually be taken for granted as an entitlement if they are not accompanied by genuine recognition and other intrinsic rewards such as opportunities to grow and contribute more, being trusted with greater responsibility, and so on. Another downside to focusing solely on extrinsic rewards is that, as some studies have shown, when people are paid for doing something they love and previously did voluntarily, this can displace some of the intrinsic rewards involved and actually decrease their enjoyment and commitment. The moral here is that people cannot live on extrinsic rewards alone, to paraphrase a well-known rabbi.

·         Be spontaneous. Don’t overly organize your recognition efforts into structured programs. It is certainly fine to have some structure, but leave some room for spontaneous, on-the-spot recognition that is genuine. People can almost instantly tell when someone is not being authentic or sincere with them, and if they know that you are just “checking a box,” they might even prefer that you didn’t bother in the first place.

·         No quotas on recognition – Establishing quotas for recognition just ruins everything. Even if you feel compelled to have a system to distribute the limited funds you allocate to bonuses and other rewards, don’t do the same with recognition. This is because, while funds are limited, there should be no limit on recognition. Nothing destroys a team’s morale like an “employee of the month” program; by singling out one person for recognition, you are implying that no one else’s accomplishments are quite as important and that they need not bother making an effort. I like the concept in theory though, so why not make it “employees of the month” and recognize everyone who has achieved something extraordinary? I am not suggesting we give everyone a trophy for trying. You can set a high bar for certain levels of contribution that warrant such an honor, so you don’t water the value of it down, but make it clear that such recognition is available to anyone and everyone. And if you have 3 people who have met and exceeded that standard, don’t pick only one just because your program says you have to! Otherwise, you risk creating a scarcity mentality among the team and deflate everybody else who feels left out. So, set a high bar and get rid of your quotas.

·         Public recognition is good. Personal acknowledgement is even better – Public recognition of accomplishments is a great way to showcase the standards that are celebrated and lift the right people up for their exemplary behavior and contributions. However, keep in mind that this is not a substitute for sitting down with someone, looking them in the eye, and genuinely letting them know what we appreciate about their contribution, explaining why it is important, and thanking them. This can be done in conjunction with the public recognition they receive, or for any other accomplishment that may not even be recognized publicly, and will really serve to drive the point home that they are genuinely appreciated.

·         Get started – Don’t worry about consistency. In other words, don’t talk yourself out of recognizing someone just because others may feel left out. In organizations that are starved for recognition, this is a natural reaction at first and it could deter you from getting started. But if you jump in and make it happen, soon you will see that the scarcity mentality is replaced by a feeling of abundance as people begin to celebrate each other’s accomplishments because they know that their own achievements will also be recognized and celebrated. The rule of thumb here is that “no good deed should go ‘unpunished.’” If you witness a positive behavior or accomplishment that you would like to encourage, don’t second-guess yourself about recognizing and celebrating it

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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