Collaborative Leadership Blog

Beyond the Penalty Box Syndrome

A business leader recently shared an experience they had taking a senior level position at a company he really wanted to work with. He was more than qualified for the position; in fact, he brought more talent to the table than some of the other senior professionals already there. Within a few weeks, he secured a large contract with only minor assistance from the sales force. Since it was a sales force-driven company, he had alienated them by his success. He was a four level “threat”, a “star”: he could not only sell and do the work, but also do customer relations and develop new products. Others felt threatened and isolated him. Within a matter of months, this highly credentialed and capable professional found himself in, what they called, the “Penalty Box”.

The Penalty Box is where you end up if you don’t fit in with the culture of the business. It is a very lonely place. Even though you have all the capabilities and skills needed to advance the business and please clients, you can’t get the cooperation and support you need from others to succeed long term. It is the kind of place where you end up eating lunch alone.

Even if you are not a “star”, you can end up in the Penalty Box if you speak truth to power or call out unethical behavior. Remember Susan Fowler at Uber? She wrote a blogpost in early 2017 about being sexually harassed. Human resources ignored her, other leaders shunned her, and within a year, she had left Uber for a start-up. Meanwhile Eric Holder investigated and Travis Kalanick, along with many other leaders, lost his job.

The Penalty Box is a syndrome that can happen at any company. It is based on the culture of the company, how people are supposed to behave, and is reinforced by peer pressure. Outsiders are expected to fit in. Insiders are expected to not rock the boat. It’s almost like a cult. It almost impossible to get out of the Penalty Box. You have a “PB” on your forehead. People won’t help you because it reflects poorly on their reputations. You don’t know how long you will be ostracized or what you have to do to get back in good graces. Truth is, when it becomes so insufferable you just decide to quit. That’s the purpose of the Box.

The costs of the Penalty Box syndrome are substantial: innovation cannot thrive, top talent will get frustrated and leave, and self-satisfied mediocrity takes hold.  You can’t become a great company if there is a Penalty Box culture.

To move beyond the Penalty Box culture requires:

  • Self-Aware Leadership: leaders who are not in denial
  • Trust-Based Culture: Where no one is afraid to speak their truth
  • Value for Diversity: Where everyone is valued for their contributions and intellect

At the end of the day, this is about creating a workplace fit for the human spirit, where everyone can do their best work and be their best selves.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616