Natural Consequences


All of us have heard some time in our life “if you don’t do _____ (fill in the blank) there will be consequences.” Sometimes we did what we were supposed to do and avoided the consequence. Other times, we didn’t fare so well. Consequences are life’s little learning agents. But did you know there are such things as natural and unnatural consequences?

In the working world, natural consequences flow out of an employee knowing what behavior is expected and why it is expected (the intent). If they behave contrary and it causes a negative result, the consequence should be related to rectifying the negative result. This way it emphasizes the importance of the expectation. This is when learning happens and employee behavior starts to be transformed.

Let me give you an example. Four people on a project team have a task due on Friday and all four of the tasks must be completed for the product implementation to start on Monday. The desired behavior is for them to finish their tasks on the agreed upon deadline. The reason for this expectation is so the product implementation is completed on time. Jim did not finish his task on Friday. A natural consequence would be to have Jim work the weekend to complete the task before Monday morning. The consequence is directly related to the intent of the expectation. The message Jim hears is that if a task needs to get done on time to keep the project on time, then get it done.

Unnatural consequences arise when the issue does not relate to the intent of the expected employee behavior. This can be because the intent of the expected behavior is known but the wrong consequence was selected; or, the intent of the expected behavior is not known and any consequence chosen would not relate to it. As a result, there is no learning and the aftermath comes off as being punitive on the manager’s part.

Let’s go through an example of an unnatural consequence. Susan travels every so often on company business. She has a history of slightly bending the travel policies. After her last trip she submitted her expenses and it was revealed that she rented a luxury car instead of mid-sized car. The manager was upset and decided to not allow Susan to go on her vacation at the end of the month. This is an unnatural consequence. The effect has nothing to do with why there are company travel policies. The company has travel policies to keep from paying frivolous expenses and the only thing this consequence emphasized was that the manager was upset and wanted to punish Susan.

A natural consequence would be to not refund Susan for her rental car expense. The message Susan would hear is that when on company travel keep the expenses in line with the travel policies and do not waste the company’s money.

We all want people to learn from their poor decisions or behavior. Help them learn by using natural consequence. Besides, it keeps you from unnecessarily putting yourself in the dog house.