Truth or Consequences Screen Beans Art © A Bit Better Corporation

Integrity is usually a major conversation when I coach groups of executives. It almost always comes up in the context of arriving to the meeting on time or returning promptly from breaks.1 This leads to a discussion of consequences, by which people mean punishments for not being on time: fines, humiliation, etc. This opens a powerful examination of monitoring, enforcement, and integrity throughout the organization.



Consequences come in two flavors. Imposed consequences are punishments contrived by an authority exerting its power to compel behavior. Natural consequences are what reality delivers in response to actions. If I take away my son’s iPod because he fails to practice his cello I have imposed a consequence. If my son does not practice, makes errors during a concert, and is not invited back by the other members of the quartet, he is suffering a natural consequence of his choices.

To see the natural consequences requires telling the truth about results.

Contriving imposed consequences in the workplace, if it becomes the primary method of seeking compliance, creates a parent-child relationship between management and employees. Managers and supervisors become diverted from their roles as leaders, strategists, and teachers into an exhausting cycle of policing, investigating, judging, and punishing. Time and energy are diverted to monitoring, cross-checking, and surveillance. Employees take on the role of deceitful, boundary-pushing adolescents. You quickly find that you do not have a team; you have a struggle.

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And there is another danger. If you consistently identify individual employee errors as the source of your organization’s problems, you lose the perspective needed to design robust, self-healing processes, e.g., The Toyota Way.

Why is it that natural consequences so often seem inadequate to elicit required behavior? Because we actively undermine their effectiveness.

When someone is late, we reflexively say it’s OK. When a deliverable is not exactly what we need, we fix it ourselves. When a team member fails to show up, we press on without them. We tolerate poor performance, cover for the failures of coworkers, or (and this is the ugly secret) we take satisfaction in witnessing other people’s failures because it lets us feel superior. Everyone knows that the person pointing out the errors and imposing the punishments is “in charge.” If we were surrounded by great performers, could we justify being their boss?

It is actually easier, though uncommon, to let natural consequences take their course and allow truth to do the hard work for us. Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler made Semco a huge success partly by allowing his teams to self-manage. When asked how he handled unreliable or poor performing employees, he was at first at a loss for an answer. Finally, he said, I am the CEO; evaluating workers is not my job. It is handled quite thoroughly on the front line. Semco teams simply will not tolerate members who are not pulling their own weight. [My blog entry on Semco is here.]

I suggest that you have a conversation with your colleagues about how they can let the natural consequences of poor performance redound to the person responsible and let the team members see the truth of how it affects their work life. This has three wonderful benefits.

  1. First, it gets people thinking in a process manner. To predict the natural consequences of failure, the team must look analytically at what came before and what comes after, as well as who depends upon whom.
  2. Second, the manager gets to be part of the team, applying their experience and perspective to help the team understand the problem.
  3. Third, people get clear about the natural consequences of outstanding performance. And that team insight creates natural, intrinsic motivation.

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Update: Since writing the essay above, I have noticed in myself and others that the urge to punish seems to be more a matter of asserting personal power and simulating safety than of justice and confidence, of a desperate desire to distance oneself from a painful past rather than take creative action in the present that might foster desired future behavior, more often a case of anger using you than of choosing behavior consistent with your values..



1 For a good article on methods top executives use to be on time see this blog post from Levenger.

For other posts on integrity see:



Truth or Consequences?
Beyond the Punishment Model.