An Out of this World Cure for Performance Punishment

A few months ago, I posted a piece describing the phenomenon known as Performance Punishment.

While most who read it could relate all too well, a few said it was depressing as it hit a little too close to home.

So instead of leaving readers with merely a description of the symptoms of performance punishment, I promised them and myself I would follow up with a prescription for the cure.

For help, I turned to the advice of my own career mentors, drew from the comments of readers who responded to my post as it appeared on and the always steadfast, insightful crew of the Starship Enterprise.  Yes, I mean Captain Kirk, Bones and the crew from Star Trek (the original TV series)!

A professor I had in grad school convinced a class of over 100 students that we could learn something about management and leadership styles from the way the Enterprise was run and, well, let’s just say the lesson spoke to me!

While the content of that discussion’s a blog post for a different day, I couldn’t help but wonder…if Lt. Uhura and the boys could teach me something about leadership and team management, could they also teach me something about how to deal with Performance Punishment?

After some reflection, here’s what I came up with:

1. Be logical like Mr. Spock in assessing your situation.

Many times we get so stressed out and emotionally worn out by performance punishment we can’t be objective at evaluating what we can and can’t control to change the situation. Often the first step in curing this disease is to take a time out in the form of a day or two off to remove ourselves from the situation so we can examine it and our options more clearly.

Of course this would be a very simple thing to do if we all had green Vulcan blood in our veins. But as humans we must honor our emotions and find a positive way to deal with them so that our logical sides can balance our perspectives.

So the lesson from the ship’s first officer is simple, take a time out to work through your emotions and logically assess your options—you’ll likely find you have more than you realize!

2. Stay focused on what you know and turn your emotions into passion like Scotty. 

And speaking of emotions, the ship’s Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott was extremely passionate about his work. He literally knew the Enterprise better than anyone. He was also known to express his passion emotionally in times of crisis: “She’s going to blow, Captain!”

The thing about his outbursts was that while emotionally charged, they never became personal or took Scotty’s focus off addressing the issue at hand. He expressed them but his professional judgment was not ruled by them.

In dealing with his emotions, Lt. Scott found a way to express himself and keep the main thing the main thing.  He was great at passionately advocating and explaining the technical pros and cons of a situation to his management so that a solution that served the greater good could ultimately be found.

When attempting to break the performance punishment cycle, you must learn to do the same.

Admittedly, since most of us don’t have Spock’s mixed Human and Vulcan heritage, this is a very difficult thing to learn how to do.  However, if Scotty, arguably the most emotional of the Enterprise leadership team, could find a way to deal with his emotions at work by letting his technical expertise and experience be his guide, you can too.

So while I’m not suggesting that you shout “The copier’s going to jam up, Frank! We’ll never make it in time!” the next time your boss wants you to send 10 copies of that 75 page power point presentation to the copier 2 minutes before you plan to present it, the lesson here is to find a productive way to deal with how you feel about your situation, but let your technical skills and experience be your guide in finding a solution for improving it.

3. Learn to establish boundaries like Bones.

Part and parcel to curing any case of performance punishment is learning how to set healthy boundaries with your boss, your colleagues and yourself.  Dr. Leonard McCoy was the ship’s physician but also one of Captain Kirk’s “go to” guys — a role the cantankerous Doctor didn’t always enjoy. To let the Captain know where he stood on the issue, Bones uttered one of his more famous catch phrases on more than one occasion: “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a {insert role beyond his skill set he was asked to play here}!”

And while I’m not suggesting that you quote Dr. McCoy verbatim (“Dammit Linda, I’m a software engineer not a magician!” might earn you a one way ticket to HR), the lesson here is simple: Know your limits and know when (and how) to say No!

4. Learn to listen and communicate clearly and confidently like Lt. Uhura.

Aside from gracing the bridge of the Enterprise with her class and poise, Uhura served as the ship’s Chief Communications Officer.

With her signature Starfleet standard-issue ear piece and communications console she listened, filtered and analyzed all of the ship’s messages—from distress signals to threats from the Klingons to undecipherable pulses to notices from Starfleet Command.

Her job was to sort through all the clutter and escalate those messages requiring the Captain’s attention.  She also served as the conduit through which the crew of the Enterprise communicated with the rest of the universe.  As the ship’s lead communications expert, she holds important clues for performance punishment sufferers. How so?

Performance punishment fosters in environments where communication breaks down. The worst thing you can do is crawl into your shell and suffer silently.

The trick to breaking the cycle is to break the silence and find a means of communicating clearly and confidently with your colleagues.

Start by finding a confidant, mentor or friend that you can talk to about how to approach your situation differently. Only pep talks and actionable advice are allowed—no pity parties!

You must also learn to listen more to what your boss is saying than how it’s being said. You must also learn to listen for cues about how best to communicate your position more effectively.

Do your colleagues prefer face-to-face meetings or email? Are they driven more by numbers or qualitative assessments? Do they respect or resent push back?

Once you clarify your position and understand how others want and need to hear from you, you’ll be better positioned to prevent performance punishment from creeping up on you and taking over.

5. Chart a new course and move full speed ahead like Mr. Sulu.

At the end of almost every episode, Captain Kirk issued the command, “Take us ahead Warp factor 2 Mr. Sulu.” Sulu then took control of the helm and did what needed to be done to move the ship out of one adventure and on into the next.

The lesson here is simply that sometimes having a good exit strategy and using it is the best remedy for performance punishment. If you can’t find a way to reset the paradigm that governs your situation, then leaving to find another job or start your own business may be the best way out.

Said another way, sometimes you have to go to grow.

If that’s the case take inspiration from Mr. Sulu, chief helmsman of the Enterprise. Map out a new path for yourself, then plan your work and work your plan to get to where you want and need to go.

6. Document your situation thoroughly and be brave like Captain Kirk. 

Although he was the ranking officer of the Enterprise, James Tiberious Kirk wasn’t the smartest or strongest person on the ship—that would be Mr. Spock.  Scotty knew the ship’s inner working better than Kirk did. Bones was older and wiser. And Uhura and Sulu could work the controls better than the Captain ever could. But Kirk was a great leader because he owned his shortcomings, stood by his team and surrounded himself with others who were strong in areas where he was weak.

He also did two things that can help cure performance punishment. First, he regularly took time to document his successes and reflect upon his journey and challenges in his Captain’s Log. Second, he bravely faced adversity and his fears head on.

If you’re afflicted by performance punishment, you too must learn to do the same.

Document your situation thoroughly—partly to cover yourself, partly to hold others accountable and partly to keep track of your successes.

Confirming conversations in emails and making notes in your electronic calendar are some of the ways to do this.

To help you rethink your situation, consider keeping a journal. It’s also a terrific way to facilitate self reflection—a critical step in getting your head straight so you can improve your perspective and your situation.

You must also learn to overcome fear. Fear can prevent you from seeing matters as they really are, trusting in your talents, pursuing your passion, establishing healthier boundaries, communicating clearly, recognizing you have options, and moving ahead with your professional life.

In other words, fear is the greatest obstacle you face when it comes to overcoming performance punishment!

To overcome both, be brave and address your challenges with the courage of Captain Kirk. And why not? If you’re like the Enterprise commander, you’ll be armed to do so with the logic of Spock, the resolve of Bones, the passion and know-how of Scotty, the clarity of Uhura, and the control of Sulu.

Together, the intrepid crew of the Enterprise explored new worlds and new civilizations.

Imagine how they can inspire you to break the performance punishment cycle so you can boldly go where you’ve never been before…Here’s to hoping you “live long and prosper”!


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Liz Nolley Tillman is a marketing communications professional-recently-turned-blogger who has spent over 20 years in Corporate America. Visit On the Hook for her musings and insights on today’s workplace as well as the advertising and marketing industry.


  1. Captain Picard on the 22nd November

    There is a way out of every box, a solution to every puzzle, it’s just a matter of finding it

  2. Patricia on the 16th May

    You can’t take off days if you are suffering from performance punishment – that is the whole problem – every one can take a day off, take vacation, leave on time, except you.

  3. carol on the 7th October

    This was really great, thanks. I am at step 5 – moving to a new position in my company, and I want to do great there, but I don’t want to fall into same trap of being so great, everyone piles on the work to me. reset button.

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