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Can There Be Good Consequences for Bad Adult Behavior?

Ideally, adult consequences should differ from those routine for children.

Key points

  • Good feedback should assist the person evaluated to learn from their mistakes, without making them angry, rebellious, defensive, or despondent.
  • It should focus not on why the behavior is wrong but on productive ways to change it.
  • As research has repeatedly demonstrated, treating those who have blundered with caring can reap outsized rewards.
Christina Morillo/Pexels
Source: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Almost all the literature on behavioral consequences pertains to children. It's about effectively disciplining them by consistently applying negative repercussions when they act out. This post, however, which centers on adults, goes in a different direction.

It addresses what may best be defined as good consequences for adult mistakes or disturbing conduct. Because the behavior needing change is approached in such a way that neither the errant individual nor the person signaling it and guiding remedial change is ever at loggerheads with the other.

The focus is clearly positive—solution-oriented versus problem-oriented—as is the outcome likely to come from it. That is, the consequence of an unscrupulous or ill-advised behavior can be understood as favorable if its remedy is presented in a sympathetic, non-judgmental manner. That way, neither party experiences any bad feelings toward the other.

The three terms pivotal in effecting this favorable result are attention, redirection, and exploration.


Here's one example of a positive attention consequence emanating from the world of sports. Say a young, 6'6" third baseman has just been promoted from triple-A (highest minor league level) to the Majors, for he's shown himself to be an excellent .300-plus power hitter. Unfortunately, though, as a fielder, he's considerably below average. Too often, balls go between his extra-long legs, and his relays to other infielders are prone to be uncatchably off-target.

After so many miscues, a fielding coach intervenes, pointing out how to practice better footwork and pivot more before releasing the ball to another player. And as a result of continually rehearsing these well-coached alterations, his fielding no longer cancels out his superior hitting, and he can now contribute significantly to his team's overall performance.


If an employee's mistakes relate to focusing on details that are irrelevant or extraneous to the outcome desired by their company, their supervisor ideally could step in to redirect their efforts to other details much more vital in succeeding with their assigned project.

Giving someone good constructive feedback about inadequacies in their performance (vs. disdainfully criticizing it) generally will lead to far less reactivity on the part of the person being evaluated. And what makes the feedback not only devoid of shaming but also practically valuable is that it doesn't just describe the behavior's wrongfulness but also characterizes how, most viably, to alter it.

What's critical in optimally appraising another's unsatisfactory behavior is doing it tactfully. That way, it assists the person in learning from their mistakes—without making them angry, rebellious, defensive, or despondent. The positive consequence is that, over time, their judgment is all the more likely to become sounder and more reliable.

That's precisely what enables a consequence for fallible behavior to be accurately viewed not as negative but as positive—and encouragingly so.

I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard many years ago about a gifted IBM employee realizing that he'd committed a mistake that would cost the company a million dollars. When he was then called into the CEO's office, he anxiously prepared himself for what he was convinced would be his inevitable firing. But to his amazement, the chief officer appeared to be offering him a promotion.

Assuming the offer was made only because his reprehensible lapse in judgment hadn't yet reached the CEO's office, he self-effacingly (however hesitantly) divulged it. And the CEO, who indeed had already been informed about this glaring error, responded by saying: "Why would we fire you? We just invested a million dollars in you!"

To put it somewhat differently, given this employee's formerly unblemished record, the assumption was that the very enormity of his (now recognized) error virtually guaranteed that nothing in any way similar would recur—that, ironically, his mistake would actually contribute greatly to his professional judgment and growth.


If a person's behavior is hurtful—whether, say, to their spouse or close friends—and is driven by unconscious motives, that behavior can't change until it's consciously recognized.

Take a situation in which a person repeatedly says or does things that jeopardize their relationships. They may, for example, unconsciously have developed a habit of criticizing their mate or second-guessing their friends' opinions. And such social insensitivities—possibly carry-overs from the way their parents treated them—are regularly experienced by these individuals as injurious or noxious.

Assuming these individuals aren't heavily defended and thus able to take in feedback that's diplomatically offered them, they can be prompted to consider the original source of their compelled (but hardly welcome) behavior. Exploratory dialogues can assist them in discovering what unresolved issue(s) from their past—possibly going way back to early childhood—have in the present induced them to act in such a relationship-undermining fashion.

Might they have repressed anger toward their original caretakers and now, unwittingly, be displacing it onto those close to them? Or did they act passive-aggressively toward their caretakers, as they're now, needlessly and undeservedly, acting toward those in their immediate circle?

Or might they be acting aggressively because they were never taught how to voice their needs and wants assertively? Could they incessantly push others' limits because, given how they were reared, they never learned appropriate boundaries? And so on.

Frequently, without the ability to connect past influences to current-day behaviors, a person can inadvertently alienate people they genuinely care about.

That's why it's so beneficial for everyone to develop at least a rudimentary understanding of the psychological dynamics typically underlying human behavior. Otherwise, how can they be in any position to engage in such potentially informative and enlightening dialogues?

Finally, note yet again, that in none of the above instances of "good consequences," are there condescension, reprimanding, or shaming. The feedback is fundamentally "instructional." The person helping to modify the untoward behavior acts as a coach or consultant—not as an avenger or harsh taskmaster. And that's exactly why the consequences can be perceived as positive instead of punishing.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that treating those who have blundered caringly can reap outsized rewards. So this most humane of approaches is unquestionably the one that should be tried first.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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