Adam Drake

How Do You Punish People?


The title of this post is literally the first question I received from someone when I was doing leadership advising at a very successful company. The company was dominant in their market and were continuing to grow internationally. The person who asked me the question was intelligent and had previously worked for a large technology organization before taking on their current role leading a department. The person knew I was there to help the executive team become more effective leaders and thereby help the company continue their along their growth trajectory, but for this person leadership was seemingly a matter of delegation and punishment.

The first question they asked me, at the very beginning of our conversation was “How do you punish people?” Another form of this question, which has also been posed to me, is “How do you hold people accountable?” For the remainder of this post I’ll refer to punishment but the points hold for accountability as well.

The answer is, I don’t punish people. When leadership is effective, punishment isn’t typically necessary. Furthermore I would consider instituting external punishment or negative reinforcement or whatever you want to call it to be a possible sign of bad leadership.

The standard follow-up question is “If you don’t punish and hold people accountable, how do you get them to do anything?” The answer is, you lead them.

Leadership versus Management

One definition of leadership is that leadership is the ability to get people to want to do what you want them to do. Put another way, a good leader has the ability to develop intrinsic motivation in other people. When this takes place, those other people have many powerful motivations to do a good job, and will generally put all their effort into this work since they understand and feel the value. So if something doesn’t go well, why would you fault them? What punishment would be appropriate? It’s probably your fault as a leader for not helping the person or team understand your intention, the general task, why the task is important, and constraints on the task. Remember, the why is by far the most important part of that list. If people don’t understand why something is important then it’s almost impossible for them to do a good job. One of your top jobs, as a leader, is to help people understand the why.

Developing this motivation within people is dramatically different from simply delegating tasks or telling people what to do. Managers can delegate tasks all day, but leaders can help people understand the tasks in context, and develop within their people a sense of ownership and caring about the tasks. Leaders then step back and give their teams the room to perform.

If, for some reason, the task is not completed within the specified constraints, the person working on it will feel internally bad. Since a good leader will have helped the person understand the purpose of the task (the why), and would have developed the intrinsic motivation within the person to complete the task, that person’s disappointment in themselves is generally more powerful than any punishment some misguided manager could have delivered.

The same argument is true for accountability. Holding people accountable is rarely necessary, since people who understand the intent, the general task, why it’s important, the constraints, and have freedom to figure out the how, will be accountable to themselves for completing the task. The accountability is constant (since it’s internal) and far more effective than something imposed upon them. If external accountability is the only reason the person is working on the task, what happens when that external accountability is momentarily removed or lacking entirely? There are times to impose accountability externally, but they aren’t common.

What to do?

If you want people to feel personally accountable for something (in other words, to feel ownership) you have to actually give them creative freedom to own the solution to the problem. This means focusing on communicating a few general things to people:

  • Context (describe the current situation)

  • Goal (what you want accomplished and why it matters)

  • Constraints (what are the boundaries of the solution)

Then ask people for their suggestions on how to achieve the goal given the constraints.

In other words, whereas a manager might tell people what to do and how to do it, a leader will effectively communicate where to go, why it’s important, and let the people figure out how to get there.

Communicating your intent and why the goal is important is probably the most difficult part, and a lot of aspiring leaders fail here because they deviate and start telling people how they want to goal accomplished. I might have to cover this in another post, but it’s critical to stick to framing your actual goal and why the goal matters. Do not go into operational details unless it’s to communicate constraints. Let your people solve the problem.

This process is more complicated than I outlined here, and even those three general bullet points for communication can be expanded upon and are not complete, but that’s the basic idea.

Just tell your team your intent and why the goal is important and let them surprise you with how they decide to solve the problem. If their solution somehow doesn’t work, that means you as a leader failed to fully communicate the goal or the constraints on the solution space, so just take responsibility for the miscommunication, revise, and try again.

It’s amazing what a creative and well-briefed team can come up with as a solution to a seemingly-impossible business problem, and as a leader it’s important to be secure in your position and supportive of their solution. Remember, their collective brains are more powerful than your individual one.


Questions not answered in this post (in no particular order):

  • What if their solution meets all the constraints but isn’t the way you would solve the problem?

  • How do you know if a leader is effective?

  • At one point does communicating constraints become telling someone how to do something?

  • Which steps or items are missing from the communication bullet points?

  • If a leader is secure does that mean they always accept the suggestions of the team?

I’ll likely cover these in a future post.