Rewarding Bad Behavior

People-watching gives us a peek into the thoughts of an individual by their actions. Watching groups of people as they interact with each other gives us clues to the culture they are creating among themselves. I have learned to be very cautious about applying the lessons learned in parenting and training pets as a somewhat inadequate solution to solving business problems, but there are some interesting parallels. Children cannot be expected to arrive with a built-in knowledge of right and wrong and must be taught. I also found from personal experience that my kids “natural” tendencies often mirrored their parents. When I have trained dogs, a program of rewards and punishments provided the stimulus needed for them to conform to my wishes (Don’t try this on cats… they are untrainable!). Even though there are pseudo-managers who treat employees as if they were children or animals, real solutions go much deeper than the obvious.

If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. – Albert Einstein

Perhaps it is a product of a society where even the last place kid on the team gets a trophy, or maybe it is the product of a paranoid company management afraid to death of litigation, but most results of childish/animalistic management is abundantly clear. “We have to fire Bob because he just isn’t working out.” It has been my experience that there are an inordinate number of Bobs who have been given a recent promotion or outstanding performance appraisal shortly before deeming them unfit to work. It doesn’t take a genius to see a problem in this behavior. If we reward the Bobs and then take away the rewards, doesn’t that make the manager the worst Bob of all? Management is more than reward and punishment.

  • Standards for company behavior begin with setting standards for individual behavior. Establishment of policies and procedures are only a start, because laws only apply to the specific activities they regulate. Teaching management and all employees of the intent of that law and engaging them in a quest toward a corporate goal creates a culture of cooperation and willing compliance. This is a topic for every new hire orientation and staff meeting.
  • Making arbitrary made-up rules about everything is counterproductive. Tardiness for meetings disrespects the meeting organizer and others in attendance. Disruptive behavior in the office is situational and not the signal to crack down or write new policies. The standards for individual behavior are a manager’s responsibility… which means that those standards must be mutually agreed upon and not frivolous.
  • Praise loudly and punish quietly. If a team member violates one of the generally accepted behavior standards and has knowledge that this is in fact a standard, remind them and then move on. Serious breaches in conduct call for more serious consequences, but managers that appear to be “building a case” against an employee for every minor indiscretion can unravel the best laid plans for a cooperative and productive culture.
  • Hinting that “somebody” is not behaving to the entire group is cowardly. Probably the only thing that could be worse is to punish the group for the bad behavior of one anonymous individual. Directly addressing the offender and pointing out the behavior that is not acceptable is the only way to prevent it from recurring. Holding a grudge for past offenses leaves a scar that is difficult to heal, so the lasting solution requires both identification and resolution of the issue in one step.

In managing toward a desirable culture, rewarding bad behavior sends mixed signals to everybody and confuses the message. Maybe we need to internalize this lesson by looking at our own behavior and set examples instead of finding excuses. We should not have expectations of being rewarded for our bad behavior, but we should be able to expect forgiveness.

To err is human; to forgive, divine. – Alexander Pope

 
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