Accountability – Consequence versus Punishment

Accountability – Consequence versus Punishment


The hard part

The toughest part about accountability is applying consequences when performance is not as desired. There comes a point when there has to be a negative consequence. If done correctly, such a point only comes when shared expectations were not met and the responsible party had sufficient time, skills and resources. When it arrives, a consequence must be applied in a fair and consistent manner. There should be no surprise.

The common mistake

Often a punishment is confused with a consequence. When a negative consequence is merited, there has been a shortcoming that likely has created a bad situation. Such situations create extra work, customer dissatisfaction, monetary loss or other effects that can create stress or emotional reactions. A punishment may be given that includes berating a person, speaking rudely or complaining. Often, a person that has not performed is blamed. Making someone feel bad, while understandable, is not likely to correct the situation. In fact, such punishment may reinforce the behavior.

Consider the example by John Shindler, when discussing student behavior in Transformative Classroom Management. If a student has an 8:00 bus pickup and arrives at 8:05, the on-time bus may have waited.  A punishment would be an angry bus driver and other passengers lecturing the student on his tardiness and lack of consideration for others. A consequence occurs if the bus leaves on-time and the student must find an alternative way to school.

Doing It Right

Consequences are best applied when accountability has been well established. Before a consequence is necessary, there must be a clear set of expectations. Having established both positive and negative consequences in advance help to avoid the reactive nature that can so easily occur when deadlines are missed or work is not done correctly. The purpose of a consequence is to teach a lesson so as to avoid the behavior in the future. When applied correctly, they can even be a welcome act. Of course, it may take a little time along with some positive results before the consequential action is fully appreciated.

Consequences are not

  • Angry or reactive
  • Surprises
  • Unreasonable or out of proportion

Consequences are

  • Determined in advance (or established after a failure and used for any re-occurrence)
  • Mutually understood
  • Timely
  • Consistent

When using accountability to drive performance to achieve your goals, there are times that consequences are necessary. Work to build a system of accountability and apply it consistently. While there will be times that consequences are necessary, it will occur less and be easier to implement when done well.

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