WASHINGTON Punishing a lazy team member can be counterproductive and it may be better to simply walk away, researchers said on Wednesday.
The researchers at Harvard University found that people who go to the trouble of punishing colleagues, co-workers or others in one-on-one situations do not profit from their revenge.
Such behavior does not pay off for a group, either, they reported in the journal Nature.
"Put simply, winners don't punish," said David Rand, who worked on the study. "Punishment can lead to a downward spiral of retaliation with destructive outcomes for everybody involved."
Rand works in Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Department of Systems Biology, which combines the study of evolution with economics.
His team studied people playing the so-called prisoner's dilemma computer-based game, in which 104 Boston-area students could choose to cooperate, defect or punish.
"Cooperation meant paying one unit for the other person to receive two units," the researchers wrote. So if both players cooperated, each got two units. Defectors could take off with three units, unless the other player defected too, in which case both ended up with only one.
"That makes defection tempting for most people and cooperation generally breaks down at some point in a prisoner's dilemma game," Manfred Milinski and Bettina Rockenbach of the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Ploen, Germany wrote in a commentary.
The Harvard game added two dimensions -- punishment and familiarity. The five top-ranked players never used costly punishment, while players who won the least amount had punished the most often.
An equivalent situation might be in the workplace, Rand said.
"Say you have a project that you have to complete with someone else and you feel like someone else is not contributing as much as they should; they are not pulling their weight," Rand said in a telephone interview.
"The thing that is best for you is to stop contributing, to walk away, as opposed to expending a lot of effort insulting them, threatening them or taking aggressive action."
Punishing someone else in a situation where both parties are equal creates an "opportunity cost," Rand said. "The time that you are spending being punitive toward the other person could be spending doing things that are more productive."
But it also does not pay to let the freeloader ride along. "It's not quite turn the other cheek," Rand said. "We are saying you should only do as much as the other person is doing."
He said the findings only apply in one-on-one situations -- not to societies or cultures as a whole, or situations in which one person is more powerful than the other.
(Editing by Will Dunham)