What are some of the ways punishment shows up in workplace culture?

 In Group coaching, Uncategorized

Can punishment change the culture of a workplace? I think so. If punishment is being used to maintain order or the status quo, then the people in that environment will adapt to protect themselves from punishment. Punishment is the norm in many spaces we spend a lot of time developing our sense of self in, including school and the workplace. When we witness the punishment of others, it may cause us to move into a self protective state to secure our role within the group (a school clique, job title, etc) and behave in ways that will minimize punishment.

If people are worried about being punished, then they are constantly on the offensive to ensure their safety and security. This means that people will take less risks. People stick to what is deemed acceptable or what is ‘normalized’ so as to minimize any potential conflict/tensions within the group. This drastically reduces creativity, the movement and flow of new ideas, individual and organizational growth.

Self protection can also mean prioritizing types of safety. For example, keeping your job is more important, so you do not come forward about workplace harassment and therefore have to keep working with the person who harmed you. This is because punishment does not affect everyone the same way. As a result of living in a world with power hierarchies, punishment does not touch everyone equally. People with more power are likely to be the ones making the rules of punishment, while those with less power are more likely to be the ones being punished.

Punishment uses fear to either maintain control of a situation (ex: threatening to fire someone if they don’t do what you want) or to obtain control (ex: someone makes a mistake and so now they owe you and must accept the punishment in order to be redeemed).

What are some of the ways punishment shows up in workplace culture?

A culture of perfectionism/fear of failure

If people are in a self protective state and operating from fear, we often get anxiety and shame driven perfectionism. Making mistakes is viewed as a failure rather than a learning opportunity and reflects your value/worth as an individual. People become more concerned with other’s perceptions of them than about their own personal growth and development. Approval by others becomes the most important in order to feel good about yourself and your work.


Most toxic work culture has strong dichotomies of who/what is good and bad. People’s worth and value often diminishes into watered down and non nuanced descriptors (strong/weak, smart/stupid, hardworking/lazy, etc) that erase human complexities and contradictions. When we see people in those dichotomies, we lose compassion and begin to see them as objects that can become easily disposed of and replaced.

Unchecked power dynamics instead of redistribution of power

Power dynamics run unchecked in the environment. People use their power irresponsibly in order to avoid punishment or to punish others. Bullying, manipulation, and abuse are some of the behaviours that are used in order to reinforce dynamics and maintain or obtain control.

Reactive conflict cultures

Because people are leading from places of self protection/motivation, we see less collaboration in the space. People respond to conflict reactively rather than intentionally in ways that are meant to prioritize their own interests. Here is where you get ‘yes’ people, after meeting meetings, harmful gossip, lying, stealing, etc.

Does this sound like your workplace?

It is possible that the threat and utilization of punishment has caused people to change the way they behave at work. To be clear, there are also many other reasons that cause toxic workplace culture to form that have overlapping results. But the reason is usually rooted in fear. If people do not feel safe at work, then they need to strategize how they’re going to minimize threats in order to survive (because most of us can’t just quit our jobs). 

Most people want me to write that article about how you should treat your employees well so that your bottom line doesn’t get affected, but I refuse to do that. To me what’s important is that you treat each other well so that people do not spend their entire work lives in states of fear, anxiety, shame, sadness, despair, etc. Because that’s unacceptable.

There are preventative measures workplaces can take and strategies they can come up with in order to strengthen workplace culture. There are also ways to deal with harmful incidents or patterns of behaviour that support the healing of those harmed and the growth and accountability of those who harmed. 

I offer coaching and trainings in those areas and am invested in making workplaces safer spaces for workers. If you think your workplace could use the support, please get in touch for a consultation.

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