Learning Versus Punishment And Accountability

Our guest author today is Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. We find it intriguing, given the current obsession with “accountability” in education reform. It is reprinted with permission from Dr. Pfeffer’s blog, Rational Rants, found at http://www.jeffreypfeffer.com.

People seem to love to exact retribution on those who screw up—it satisfies some primitive sense of justice. For instance, research in experimental economics shows that people will voluntarily give up resources to punish others who have acted unfairly or inappropriately, even though such behavior costs those doing it and even in circumstances where there is going to be no future interaction to be affected by the signal sent through the punishment. In other words, people will mete out retribution even when such behavior is economically irrational.

All of this would be of only academic interest except it plays out in the organizational world in ways that often inhibit learning from mistakes and preventing future mishaps. Consider, for instance, the horrendous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. There were many entities involved on the oil rig and drilling in deep water is a complex engineering task. As BP CEO Tony Hayward repeatedly stated during his ill-starred congressional testimony, the cause, or more likely, the causes (plural) of the accident remain to be fully understood. And, of course, in order to learn from this disaster to help prevent future ones, understanding what went wrong, and why, is essential. However, the BP oil spill is embroiled in both civil and criminal litigation and investigations. So—big surprise—many of the individuals who could shed the most light on what happened are clamming up. As reported in an article in the New York Times, some people are taking the Fifth Amendment (against self-incrimination), some have cancelled their appearances before investigators, and others are asking for more documentation as a way of delaying their appearance.

In her book, The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Hoffer Gittell describes why Southwest Airlines outperforms its peers in the airline industry. One interesting contrast was with American Airlines under Robert Crandall. Crandall believed in individual accountability and in the power of competition—so when flights were delayed, the question was who (which individual, which function) was to blame? Southwest recognized that assigning blame was complicated and, in any event, caused cover-ups and created fear that retarded making things better. Southwest implemented the idea of a team delay—collective responsibility—and instead of trying to find who had just suffered a career-ending event, sought to figure out the root cause of the problem so it could be prevented.

In other words, Southwest had a learning goal, American had a goal of assigning blame so that punishment could be delivered. Gittell shows how this difference in dealing with problems after they occurred helped Southwest become much more productive than its airline industry peers.

Although the motivation to seek retribution seems strong, it can, and often does, get in the way of another valued objective—learning. We as individuals and companies would be well served to understand the trade-offs between learning and punishment and make wiser decisions that help us learn from our mistakes. After all, mistakes are in the past, and the past can not be changed. What we can do is to learn and thereby create a better future.