Managers Reward Behaviors They Want Repeated

Bill Lee

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This basic management principle will go a long way toward helping managers raise the productivity of their organizations. Yet, in their haste to get the job done, many managers forget this principle and focus more on punishment than reward.

Back in my corporate life, my company hired a management trainer to come into our organization to help us fine-tune our management skills. I’ll never forget one of the techniques he used to teach us this principle.

First, he sent one of the seminar attendees out of the room. Then he asked one of us to hide a playing card. If I remember correctly, the card was hidden inside one of the books on the shelf in the meeting room. The attendee was then called back into the room and asked to find the playing card.

Of course, he had no idea where to look, so one of us was given a small bell to ring when his movements took him in the direction of where the card was hidden. If he turned the wrong way, the bell was silent.

It was amazing. In just a couple of minutes he was standing in front of the bookshelf. In another minute, he had the correct book in his hands and flipped through it until he found the playing card. Grand total: Maybe three minutes.

Then the seminar leader tried the opposite approach. He sent another attendee out of the room and another playing card was hidden. Only this time when the attendee returned to the room, he received a stinging slap on the upper arm with a rolled up newspaper each time he made the wrong move; that is, when he moved in the wrong direction.

Instead of continuing to use a trial and error approach like the first attendee used to successfully find the playing card, this attendee froze to avoid both the discomfort of the newspaper and the humiliation he felt in front of his peers. He simply stood still. He quit trying.

Lesson learned: Employees learn faster and more comfortably when managers use rewards versus punishment to achieve desired behavior. The sound of the bell ringing rewarded positive behavior and the sting of the newspaper punished negative behavior.

Another example is when an employee violates a company rule. It’s important to take immediate action. If other employees observe that you have allowed one of their fellow employees to violate the rule - and you take no corrective action - that is the same as rewarding negative behavior. You are sending the message that being a few minutes late is okay. Every organization must have minimum conditions of employment and enforce those minimums.

I worked with a manager on a consulting assignment recently who complained to me that he had been unable to get one of his employees to meet deadlines. Yet he had taken no action. In fact, he had never even sat the employee down and dealt with the unacceptable behavior. When I interviewed the woman, she had told me that her relationship with her manager was excellent. As it turned out, she has actually received a raise just a few months earlier and her review was totally positive.

If managers want different results, they must reward the behaviors they wish to see more of. Most employees want to please their supervisor. Most employees want to do good work. Managers generally get the behavior that they reward.

Bill Lee works with managers who want to put more money on the bottom line and salespeople who want to improves sales and gross margin. Bill is the author of Gross Margin: 26 Factors Affecting Your Bottom Line. $29.95 plus $6 S&H. Bill is also author of 30 Ways Managers Shoot Themselves in the Foot. $21.95 plus $6 S&H. Or call 800-808-0534 to order via voice mail. All credit cards accepted.


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