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Learn to let go of punishment

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Revenge is sweet, but not as sweet as avoiding pain in the first place. That’s worth considering as you confront a team about a screw-up.

On the one hand, exacting retribution on those who have screwed up satisfies some primitive sense of justice. It explains our desire to bring BP to justice after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

On the other hand, in order to learn from the disaster, we need to understand what went wrong. But those whom we could best learn from have clammed up, concerned about litigation.

Here’s a prime example of punishment vs. learning: American Airlines under Robert Crandall put a premium on accountability. When flights were delayed, he demanded to know who was to blame.

In contrast, Southwest Airlines recognized that assigning blame was complicated and created fear, which slowed improvement. The airline implemented the idea of collective responsibility and sought to figure out the root cause of a problem so it could be prevented. This simple difference helped Southwest become more productive than its competitors.

The lesson: The past can’t be changed. What you can do is learn, and create a better future.

— Adapted from “Learning versus Punishment and Accountability,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, Rational Rants.

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