Why some leaders choose to punish subordinates

by L&D20 Jun 2016
Often when leaders punish subordinates it is attributed to one major factor: distrust.
That’s the theory of the social and organisational psychologist Marlon Mooijman from the Leiden University in The Netherlands.
Mooijman argues that leaders expect other people not to obey the rules, and they punish them because of this distrust.
He added that these punishments are often not very effective and might even make the situation worse.
“When people feel distrusted, they are less likely to obey the rules,” said Mooijman.
“They see this assumption on the part of the leaders as a sign of disrespect.

“It also violates an implicit social contract: ‘If you treat me well, I will act accordingly’.’’

Mooijman also noted that leaders are people who control valuable resources.

For example, a manager can decide whether an employee gets a bonus, and a judge can decide whether or not someone keeps their freedom
So why do leaders sometimes struggle to trust their subordinates?
According Mooijman, they fear losing their power, and act out of the desire to protect it. 
“Leaders are afraid that if they are too trusting of others, this trust can be abused,” he said.

“This would then, of course, threaten their position.”

The consequence is that leaders mainly use punishment as a deterrent, to ensure that similar rule breaking never happens again.

However, it’s Mooijman’s belief that punishments of this kind do not have the desired effect.

“We see that some power systems can actually exacerbate the problems,” he said.

Mooijman’s research involved asking people with power to complete questionnaires. He also conducted experiments in the Faculty lab with students temporarily assigned to be a manager.

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