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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: There are problems with punishment

March 18. 2018 11:00PM

When scouting the internet for ideas on modifying a particular aspect of our dog’s behavior, expert trainers seem to agree that the use of positive reinforcers, such as praise or a treat, provides a kinder approach to bring about a desired change and is more effective than punishment.

There’s nothing new here. Though striving for a more self-determining atmosphere for human beings, it is sometimes purposeful to shape behavior. The study and application of reinforcement theory — the carrots and sticks kind of motivation — is rich with findings in support of positive feedback leading to desired outcomes in individuals. Sometimes the targeted change will occur in steps toward the ultimate goal. This partial improvement method is referred to as successive approximation.

Despite all the evidence in support of a positive approach in helping modify human behavior, what strikes me, yet again, is the propensity that people in positions of power (for example, coaches, bosses, teachers, parents) have toward using controlling, negative schemes to bring about compliance with their wishes. This method would include such punishment techniques as mocking and ridicule.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article on baseball spring training camp updates that described a regrettable, negative approach to management. A team was using a bright yellow toy school bus, called “The Sensitive Bus,” as an acknowledgment for players who reacted with too much sensitivity to provocations by fellow teammates.

If one became upset at, for example, being ridiculed by some “just kidding” comments, the victim of the goading would now become the recipient of this symbol of hurt feelings. So, if you were needled by a teammate and showed any upset, you might well be put-down even further by having this “Sensitive Bus” placed in front of your locker, by your coach. The stated objective was to encourage players to develop “thicker skin.”

I am happy to report that, not long after the story appeared, “The Sensitive Bus” was buried. Mercifully, the team’s astute manager decided that it was not in keeping with the club’s philosophy of putting the players in a position to succeed. Kudos for him.

Yet, this is just one story, among many, about ill-chosen, negative techniques used to bring about positive change. There are many examples of coaches who use a punitive or mocking approach to keep players in line.

Fines and reduced playing time are two popular methods of enforcing such things as timeliness of arrival, or meeting curfew times. Rules have consequences if not obeyed. I buy that. But when gratuitous and arbitrary punishments are utilized, all kinds of difficulties can arise. Punishment as a means of controlling behavior is the least efficient path to success and can be risky. It should be handled with care, if needed. Among its downside consequences:

1. The recipient feels demeaned, especially if an adult. There is collateral damage, as well; not only does the target get hurt, but his colleagues can be affected vicariously, sharing the pain.

2. One of the outcomes of pain can be anger, which could be directed toward the inflictor of the punishment and/or the originator of the offensive comments — or others.

3. The originator of this string of events — a teammate — will be resented, likely dividing support on the team between the two players.

I have devoted considerable energy during my time in academe (in the classroom and on the field), as well as in business, helping to build successful teams. It has always been exciting to see what genuinely collaborative groups can achieve with mutual support and respect. Put-down humor needs to be put away with yesteryear’s uniforms.

“Just kidding” as an explanation for offensive comments just doesn’t cut it. Players at a serious competitive level need to keep both eyes on what they are doing, such as pitching, hitting, fielding, etc. If one eye (figuratively speaking) is devoted to watching out for what’s being said about oneself, that individual will not be totally focused on the task at hand. There are ways to help them do this that are far more effective, although space doesn’t permit an explication.

One player, an all-star center fielder, told me that he looks for opportunities to encourage players, particularly those who are frustrated, for example, when going through a batting slump. This kind of desire to have a positive impact on colleagues, including those who might even be vying for your own job, is the stuff of a true team. The same applies in business organizations.

Punishments cause fear and anxiety, often leading to either aggression or timidity. This is not the psychological flow that leads to best performance. Punishment is about control, puts an emphasis on one’s incompetence, and breaks down mutual reliance and respect; you’re three-for-three on violating the psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Divided teams are to be avoided, not encouraged — whether at the ballpark, in the office, or on the factory floor. Punishment can be a motivation buster and a team wrecker.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. He has served as a professor with Fordham University, a senior line executive in the television industry, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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