Motivation: Positive and Negative Incentives

Positive and Negative Incentives
Motivation: Positive and Negative Incentives

When I was in high school, I had a fantastic U.S. History teacher.  He had us subscribe to Time Magazine and we were required to read an editorial from the newspaper every day.  We were to highlight the main issues of the editorial in one color and terms we didn’t know in another color.

He then used the current events we read about to relate them to our history.  Issues with Social Security?  That relates back to FDR and the New Deal.  A congressional debate about the NASA budget?  JFK’s goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade back in the 60s.

He made US History lively and interesting.  I haven’t read the editorial page since without thinking of him.

Use of positive and negative incentives

He also had a bonus point system that kept you on your toes.  If you made an interesting point, asked a thoughtful question that led the class to a new level of learning or connected two different events of history analytically, you got a “Plus 1” (long before Google was ever thought of).  One trustworthy person in class was designated each quarter to keep track of the bonus points.  At the end of each quarter, the bonus points were added to your grade.

The flipside of this were the zaps.  If you asked a question that had already been covered in class, you were zapped a point for not paying attention.  If you looked at your watch during class: zap one.  If you did anything that showed that you weren’t focused and paying attention, you risked getting zapped.  Every other day or so, he’d go around the room and check for editorials.  If you didn’t have one, you were zapped.  If he questioned you on the meaning of a term that you didn’t highlight and you couldn’t answer it: zap.

It created a competitive environment in the class that encouraged us to pay attention, be involved and hold each other accountable.  Not everyone liked it.  It was embarrassing to get zapped in class.  But the zap and bonus system was a well-balanced incentive system that encouraged engagement in a class that can easily be made boring.

Using it in the business world

It got me to thinking about the management and evaluation approaches of people I’ve worked for in the past.

I’ve had bosses who only focus on the great things I’ve accomplished.  The first performance evaluation of my career gushed on and on about what a great employee I’d been, great sense of humor, quick learner, etc.  I initially felt great, but the 4% raise seemed a little unjust, given what an over-achiever I was.  I walked out of the review feeling a bit empty.  After only one year, I knew I had made some mistakes to learn from and I knew there had to be some growth potential.  I got the bonus points, but not the zaps.

I’ve also had bosses that focus on the zaps, and rarely on the bonus points.  I had one that criticized on nearly a day-to-day basis.  I would persist and make my numbers.  At the end of the year, he’d hand me a sizable bonus check, shake my hand and thank me for doing such a good job this year.  He and I both knew that the next day, he would return to critical-mode.

Another variation of the negative approach was a manager that didn’t disparage as much as nit-picked everything I said and did.  With virtually every statement I made, she would correct a word, or warn me to be careful about using this or that term because the client may become confused or interpret my statement the wrong way.

There were times when, just like my critical boss, she was exactly right.  But both of them were too much zap and too little bonus.  After a while, the criticisms lacked punch.  Much like I wished my ‘all-bonus’ boss gave me some constructive criticism to help me grow, I wished the negative bosses had balanced their criticism with a few pats on the back to reinforce the things they wanted me to continue doing.

See my related post: A High School Inspiration That Lives On

Conclusion

People need to know what they do right as much as they need to know what they do wrong.  In a consulting environment, the client rarely hesitates to point out what is wrong.  It’s a consulting manager’s responsibility to make sure they balance communicating a consultant’s strengths and weaknesses to facilitate their growth.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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