August 30, 2013

Is there room for punishment in progress-focused work?

The progress-focused approach, which has its roots in the solution-focused approach, focuses on the desired situation, on previous successes, and on doing what works. Given this positive focus it may not be surprising that in solution-focused and progress-focused books and articles there is hardly any mention of punishment as a means to influence behavior.

Punishment and the progress-focused approach do not seem to fit well with one another. An example: the progress-focused approach assumes a growth mindset, the belief that people can change and grow by putting in effort. Research has shown that people with a growth mindset are less inclined to label, stereotype, and punish people.

Punishment can backfire, for example when punishment comes too late, when it is too harsh, and when it is not clear what the reason for the punishment is. Also, punishment is not likely to be successful when the people for whom it is intended are not so sensitive for punishment and are not easily deterred by it.

At the same time, it is a fact that punishment is part of our society and of all our institutions. Nearly always, punishment plays some role in schools and in raising kids. It is hard to imagine social interactions and cooperation in which punishment plays no role at all. It may be indispensable. And it may work. Punishing someone who breaks the rules can help to prevent damage for others.

This example shows that even in solution-focused facilitation the threat of punishment may play an important and positive role.

My question is: What do you think?  Is there a valuable role for punishment in this approach? If yes, when, and how?


  1. A manager of a big ship building company in Japan told me he cannot manage without occasionally using the power of scolding. Punishment and scolding are different. But losing face by being scolded is hard enough for Japanese to take it as a punishment.

    That manager says he scolds only when he trusts somebody has a great potential. And the phrase he always uses at the beginning is "Hey, Mr.XX, it's very unlike you to do XXX." In other words, he takes the scolding time to send the message "I trust you!"

    He grins at me and says, "So after I scold my subordinate, often that person comes back to me later and gives thanks to me."

    He took my short SF training and understood the value of seeing people from positive angle and giving compliments. However, he did not forget to tell me, "Aoki-san, nonetheless I will keep scolding when necessary."

  2. Hi Aoki, Very interesting! I think scolding is indeed a from of punishment. Personally, I try to see scolding as a last resort and I do not apply it a lot. But, I admit, sometimes it does happen. I wonder if we can do without such things completely.

    What do you personally think?

  3. I am not going to talk about therapeutic nor coaching situation where the relation is limited to certain amount of time and the roles of helper and helpee are fixed, making it possible to have little need for scolding or punishment.

    In our workplaces I think we cannot not have our personal emotions, therefore we tend to lose our temper time to time if we engage in a lasting relationship with other people. But if the receiving side of that emotional blow has SF attitude, that person could take it thinking "Oh, he must have a reason for that." And he can minimize the negative effect of the emotional blow and come back at having a solution talk. So I think the important thing is how people at a workplace can have that kind of understanding and tolerancy toward negative emotional blow and judgemental remarks coming from the need to move forward in the work. If we succeed in creating SF culture, the daily conversations at a workplace is filled with SF elements to a certain degree, that kind of tolerance can be expected to increase.

    At the end of that kind of effort to create SF culture, punishments can have different names and forms fulfilling both the correctional function and also saving face function at the same time.

  4. Hi Aoki-san,
    You point to something important I think in saying that there is a difference between the coaching or therapeutic relationship on the one hand and the work context on the other.

    In a therapeutic or coaching relationship it is usually relatively easy for a professional to keep personal emotions out of the conversation. The conversation is brief and the client will leave the room wihtin an hour or so. But on the work floor that is quite a different matter. You colleagues won't go away. Therefore the challenge is a different one.

    I think, indeed, that emotional outburst can happen from time to time and it is important how people respond. Several types of reaction like "Oh, he must have a reason for that" can be very helpful. Normalizing is also helpful. Slowly but surely developing a culture in which people work together respectfully for one another is a great thing.


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