Already a Customer? Sign In New Customer? Register (0) My Cart


Newsletter Articles

How to Punish Someone

By Dr. Travis Bradberry

Think about the last time you punished someone. In cracking down on their bad behavior, did you just address the offending act, or did you work to understand and address what caused the behavior in the first place? Lincoln High School, in Washington state, has developed a program that illustrates just how ineffective typical forms of punishment are, and how effective the right approach to punishment can be in creating lasting improvements in behavior.


The focus of the program is twofold—to show genuine concern for the offender and to try to get to the root cause of the behavior. When a student acts out, a faculty member takes a moment to speak with the student before carrying out a disciplinary response. During the conversation, the faculty member addresses the offending behavior, expressing empathy for the student and trying to understand what he or she was dealing with that might have motivated the behavior. More often than not, the offending student has a lot to say, and over the course of the conversation, the faculty member helps the student to understand how seemingly unrelated stressors have impacted his or her behavior. It's important to note that the punishment is still dished out, but only after the structured conversation. The school's only shift in applying discipline relates to suspensions, which are now served in school instead of at home.

Unlike traditional methods of punishment, this program gives students tools to understand why a disciplinary event occurred and how they can avoid it in the future. Students are still held accountable for their behavior, but discipline is enacted in a supportive environment. The teachers' empathy in disciplining students and ability to help students understand the root causes of their behavior have had a huge impact on students' subsequent behaviors. In the year before the program was enacted, Lincoln High had 1,350 suspensions, 50 expulsions, and 600 written referrals. In the year that the program was implemented, the school saw 798 suspensions, 30 expulsions, and just 320 written referrals.

Punishing a behavior is not enough to help a person change. Lincoln High's program teaches us two things that need to be remembered if a punishment—in any setting—is to be effective:

1. Seek understanding.

Just like the faculty at Lincoln High, your first priority before doling out punishment should be to try and understand what circumstances contributed to the behavior in the first place. Speak privately to the offender, so that he or she will have the space to speak candidly. Whether family problems, being overcommitted, or a simple lapse in judgment contributed to the negative behavior, your exploring these factors is an act of empathy, and does not mean that you condone the mistake or plan to look the other way. Your show of understanding and the guidance that you provide as a result of knowing everything about the situation will go a long way in helping the offender avoid a similar mistake in the future.

2. Recognize the "red zone."

Too often in the workplace, punishment comes in the form of a public reprimand or berating, usually involving an impulsive and emotional response by an upset manager. This strategy may make the manager feel good, but it does little to reduce the chance of encountering the same behavior in the future. Instead, public scolding generates a stress response that prevents the offender from absorbing information. Principal Jim Sporleder of Lincoln High School utilizes a zone system (red, yellow, green) to identify when people are able to take in information that will help them to learn and improve. Lashing out at offenders puts them instantly into the red zone, if they aren't there already. It is thus vital to recognize when people are in the red zone, and to give them some time to calm down. Otherwise, your message will fall on deaf ears.



Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world's leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

  • Share
  • Download
  • Read Other Articles
  • Newsletter Sign up:

Want to get articles like this one in your Inbox every week?

Sign up for our newsletter!

Join more than 2 million other subscribers.

Enter Your Email