A Coaching Power Tool By Dennis Carpio, Executive Coach, AUSTRALIA
The Impact of Reward vs. Punishment
Have you missed out on a job promotion or lost a deal that you thought would give you that much-needed break? Or did you lose your job, and you’re worried about how to make ends meet? Sometimes it feels like the Universe is conspiring to bring you down.
We’ve all been there. Life can sting sometimes. As an executive coach, it is standard for my clients to get stuck in a negative psychological and emotional state when they hit a rough patch in their professional or personal lives. They think and sometimes strongly believe that they are being punished. Here is a tool that coaches can use to help their clients shift from a punishment mindset to a reward mindset; they can find meaning and a sense of reward in difficult times.
Effects of Reward vs. Punishment in Comparison
Some of my coaching clients think they are being punished or just out of luck when going through difficult situations. They ask themselves what they’ve done to deserve such adverse circumstances. They end up placing themselves in a state of a negative spiral, increasing stress and anxiety, which often leads to further self-destructive behaviors.
How to tell when your client has slipped into the Punishment space? You would observe a combination of the following signals:
Notice when your client is blaming themselves or others for their misfortune. They tend to blame past decisions, events, or actions for their current suffering. They say things like
- “If only I did ___ or did ____, things would be much better.”
- “If only I had better education, I would have had a better career.”
- “Had my boss told me sooner, I wouldn’t be in this mess today.”
- “I never get anything right.”
Suffering is when your client seems to focus on the experience of suffering the pain of their perceived punishment. This is accompanied by a lack of inability to see a positive future. They become fixated on their short-term misfortune. Some clients would accept their suffering as something they deserve due to their past decisions or actions. Clients would justify their suffering by saying things like
- “I don’t deserve to be happy. I’m a failure.”
- “I’m destined to suffer.”
- “Some people are just unlucky, like me.”
- “Let me suffer. It is what it is.”
- “This is how things are. It will never change.”
Clients who believe they are simply unlucky (or bound to suffer)tend to spend a lot of time replaying negative past scenarios and thoughts in their heads. Instead, they go into rumination in an unhealthy manner, causing anxiety and stress to increase, which triggers the fight, freeze, or flight response of the Limbic system. This stress response makes it even more difficult for the client to get out of their emotional paralysis or the inability to change their emotional state from negative to something more positive and productive.
The following may indicate that your client is experiencing emotional paralysis.
- Inability to choose due to fear of failure
- Gets overwhelmed when thinking about change
- The perception that nothing will work regardless of what they do
- Low confidence and sense of self-worth
- The client catastrophizes the outcome of any potential options
- They are designed to “live with it” and hope things will eventually be okay
In contrast, the client has shifted to the Reward space when they exhibit an expanded sense of awareness about their situation. They discover the reason or purpose of their “suffering” and view it differently. Clients now view their current situation as a source of reward – an opportunity to improve, learn, grow, contribute, or do something meaningful for themselves or others.
Getting my clients to make the transition from punishment space to reward space involves tapping onto the following areas:
The client gains expanded awareness about their relationship to their current situation. They realize that their current emotional state is a function of interpreting what is happening around them. They become aware of their reactions and emotions about the situation and consider alternative viewpoints. Clients become aware of their limiting beliefs and feel new pathways to move forward. Finally, they learn how to disassociate themselves from negative thoughts and adapt better.
As part of the shift, your client will get renewed sense of volition and ownership, able to draw possible solutions that can end their suffering. They stop blaming others and themselves; instead, they realize that they are accountable for their success and are responsible for their actions and decisions.
Clients are now open to different interpretations of their current circumstances. They may appreciate the meaning and purpose behind their misfortunes and struggles. They begin to see the struggles as a necessary part of their journey. They move from a disempowering victim mindset to a more solutions-focussed, forward-looking perspective. The purpose and meaning motivate them to keep going despite the difficulties.
Coaching: Reward vs. Punishment
Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1962)
When coaching clients in the Punishment space, the coach must avoid dismissing their view of their situation as incorrect or trivial. To the client, their view of their current situation is genuine. In my practice, what I find helpful is when I take on a combination of a thinking partner and a mirror that my client can use for self-reflection. My role as a coach is not really to give them the solutions to their problem but instead to help them understand their current situation and themselves much better.
I recommend exploring the three areas below, in no particular order, to help your client transition into the Reward space.
Evoking Self Awareness
When your client is in the suffering space mindset, it is essential to remember that their decision made them conclude that suffering is the appropriate response. One framework that I find helpful in helping my clients become better aware of their thinking process is the Ladder of Inference (see Figure 1), which suggests a model for the thinking process that we adopt when deciding what to feel or do.
We all start with objective reality and facts from the bottom of the ladder. From there, we:
- Process empirical information selectively based on intuition and experiences
- Interpret the selective experience
- Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without deliberating them
- Draw conclusions based on interpreted facts and assumptions
- Form beliefs based on these conclusions
- Take actions that seem “right” based on our conclusions
When anchored against limiting beliefs, this can create a vicious cycle when we contemplate problems. For example, you could use this model to help your client reflect on their thought process(Mind Tools, 2021).
Work down the ladder to help your client “work backward” to understand their thinking process.
- What made you do/think/feel that?
- What about that you believe is true?
- How did you arrive at that conclusion?
- What assumptions are relevant here?
- What did you notice when that happened?
- What happened there?
Work up the ladder to discover a new sense of reasoning or awareness
- How did you feel about what happened?
- What is significant about what you noticed?
- How do you know your assumptions are accurate?
- What else could be possible here?
- What else could be true?
- If these were true, what might you do differently?
Creating a Sense of Ownership
Your client now has increased awareness and understanding of their situation and how it affects them. In their minds, they will likely start thinking about what to make of this newfound learning. As the coach, you play an essential part in guiding your client to find a constructive path forward and will contribute to your client’s growth and development. The next move is to enable your client to become aware and understand their contribution to the problem and their significant role in finding a way forward towards resolution.
In practice, however, this can prove challenging without the client’s willingness to accept the possibility that they are party to the problem. Instead, they get stuck in the blaming mindset. TheInternational Coach Academy’s FlipIt coaching framework tool called Responsibility vs. Blame explains that the client often sees themselves as the victim and tends to blame someone or something else for their situation instead of taking ownership and responsibility. Client is trapped in the Blame Game when they feel helpless, they think they’re bad or wrong, someone else is bad or wrong, or the situation is out of their control(ICA, 2022).
Without acknowledgment, change is impossible. As Carl R. Roger once said,
we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are until we thoroughly accept what we are…(Rogers, 1995)
Here are some coaching questions that can help your client have a sense of ownership and accept responsibility:
- In what ways, however small, do you think you have contributed to this outcome?
- What is your desire to make sure this gets resolved?
- What can you do to help improve the situation even by just a little?
- In this situation, what else could you do to help?
- What are the things that you alone could provide to the situation?
A word of caution for the coach, if your client responds negatively and plays the victim card, resist the temptation to force your plan and get your client to believe they are wrong. A better approach might be to pause and take some time to understand what might be blocking your client from taking responsibility. As a coach, have compassion and patience. Your client’s current state of mind genuinely believes they are right.
To identify limiting beliefs, reflective questioning could be helpful such as,
- When you said ____, I noticed that…
- So, you’re saying that…
- I noticed your energy shifted when…
If the above approach did not go well for your client, it could be that they are not yet ready. So have patience as some of these things take a few coaching sessions.
Creating a sense of ownership builds a sense of self-worth and value, which helps shift their perspective about their situation as an opportunity for positive action within their scope of influence and control.
Establishing Empowering Perspectives
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote,
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…(Frankl, 1962)
To shift your client’s mindset from Punishment to Reward, coach them to consider the long-term implications of their current perceived trials or struggles. The intent is to help them link their everyday challenges as part of a greater goal worth striving for. At this stage, your client has gained a greater sense of ownership in their current predicament and is likely more receptive to rethinking their struggles and embracing a more empowering perspective.
There are two tactical approaches to achieving an empowering perspective amidst the suffering,
- Revisit Past Learnings – Taking tried and tested patterns from Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, you could inquire about similar past events or situations and help your client be aware of what they have learned from that experience and possibly apply the same line of thinking to their current position. The fundamental principle here is to remind your clients that they may already have what they need to solve their problems.
- Envision FutureRewards – Another way to approach this, my default approach is to help your client explore scenarios and possible future implications of their current situation. You could use the following prompts,
- What are you learning about yourself from this experience?
- How can this situation benefit you or others in the future?
- How is this situation helping you or others be better?
Argyris, C. Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Frankl, V. E. Man's Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.
ICA. FlipIt - A Coaching Framework for Change.Retrieved from International Coach Academy: https://coachcampus.com/flipit/
Mind Tools. The Ladder of Inference: How to Avoid Jumping to Conclusions.
Rogers, C. R. On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin (Trade).
Taibbi, R. Do You Have Analysis Paralysis?