To Be Forewarned Is to Be More Likely to Cheat

Why announcing sanctions can undermine compliance.

Posted Jun 10, 2018

Supervisors shouldn’t believe everything they are told. There may be trouble in store for those who think man is intrinsically good. Managers who trust their subordinates to comply with set rules inevitably will be taken for a ride. And at the end of the day, they only get the blame for being too gullible.

This doom scenario plagues many managers who are responsible for the performance of their subordinates. Every time there is an incident where employees bend the rules, don’t do what they were told, or use company resources to advance their own goals, supervisors are blamed for being too lax. Top management, if not the general public and politicians request stiffer penalties, more controls, ever-tightening restrictions, and recommend that rule breakers are deterred by announcing severe sanctions. The thinking is that as long as people are made sufficiently aware of the possible repercussions ahead of time, they will think twice before straying. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

Where’s the harm?

But is it true? What would be the effect of warning people about stricter punishments or emphasizing ahead of time that the chances they will get away with anything are very slender indeed? It can’t do any harm, can it? Research shows that, in many cases, it can. In the first place it means that more time and effort will have to go into accountability and controls. It may, at best, prevent problems from occurring but extra efforts would be needed. But more importantly, stepping up attempts to enforce rule compliance in this way can also achieve the exact opposite.

Erosion of trust

This was revealed in a program of research that examined the emergence and impact of deterrence sanctions. A series of studies consistently showed that different ways of assigning power to people, making them responsible for the behavior of others, all raised distrust in the good intentions of subordinates. Further, these feelings of distrust made supervisors consider deterrence as a valid motive for punishment. As a result, they came to threaten their subordinates with fines and other sanctions to deter them from breaking rules.

Another series of studies in the same program of research revealed the downward spiral that is set into motion in this way. The dominant feeling in people who are treated to preliminary warnings is that the management thinks they can’t be trusted. Why else are they threatened with punishments before they haven’t done anything wrong?

Here willingness to comply with set rules was examined among a range of participant samples in different cultural contexts. In all of the studies, the impact of forewarning people ahead of time that rule transgressions would be sanctioned made them feel distrusted. Even worse, the lack of trust communicated in this way achieved the opposite of what is intended. It undermined their willingness to do what they were told, instead of increasing rule compliance. This was found for the inclination of citizens to commit tax fraud, willingness of students to engage in plagiarism, the incidence of work team members to lie to their team leaders about work completed, and their tendency to take away resources from their team leader.

Deterrence is a double-edged sword

You would think that announcing strict penalties ahead of any misdemeanor (as a deterrent) would make people think twice before doing anything untoward. Research shows this may not be true. Supervisory bodies or managers who announce extra controls or sanctions to keep people on the straight and narrow should be aware that they may be stirring up trouble in this way. Assuming that sanctions will be needed makes people feel distrusted for being considered guilty or accused before they have even put a single foot wrong.

Supervisors who communicate lack of faith in the good intentions of their subordinates, erode mutual trust, resulting in a lack of willingness to keep to the rules. Managers may be tempted to announce stricter controls and greater sanctions to convince the outside world that they are on top of the situation. However, this is not the best way to improve staff behavior.


Mooijman, M., Van Dijk, W. W., Van Dijk, E., & Ellemers, N. (2017). On sanction-goal justifications: How and why deterrence  justifications undermine rule compliance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 577-588.

Mooijman, M., Van Dijk, W. W., Ellemers. N., & Van Dijk, E. (2015). Why leaders punish: A power perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109, 75-89.