Payday means different things to different people. To a fat middle class ten year old kid it means “snack variety”! That husky variety seeking lad was me. Looking back from age 7-17 I never remember being full. All I wanted to do was eat. Fruit, veggies, meat, ice cream, imitation meat, ice cream, pizza, ice cream, nothing could get me full, not even ice cream---I ate a lot of ice cream. One payday my mom prepared my fat ass an entire tray of food. The main course for this pre-lunch meal was canned ravioli. Chef Boyardee would have been so proud of my appetite for his mass produced Italian cuisine for my L’antipasto. Like Will Ferrell’s character from Wedding Crashers, I yelled upstairs, “Mom, Ravioli!”—wondering to myself the whole time, ‘what’s she’s doing up there? Here I am starving to death and I never know what sees doing up there!’
After a brief standoff about whether she would bring the tray of food to me or if my starving, weak, fragile and frail body would have to make an Everest like ascent up the stairs, I gave in and drug myself to the kitchen where I saw the most beautiful thing even put in an old CoolWhip bowl. The plastic tray should have normally been used as a laundry hamper, but for me it was just the right size to fill with food that would tease my appetite. Happiness was all over me and my smile soon gave way to the real objective; get back down stairs and get your grub on. With pure joy and high cholesterol coursing through my partially clotted veins, I got cocky and with two stairs left before reaching the bottom I tried to click my heels like a good spirited leprechaun. Just one problem, I forgot I couldn’t jump and my body went one way while my prized ravioli went the other and painted the concrete block wall the most delicious shade of orange ever crafted. The laundry hamper turned food tray broke my fall and knocked the air out of chubby chest. Trying to get my wits about myself, I hear my mom tromping down the stairway screaming at me about being careful and having self-control. When I looked up to see the food tray emptied and a pile of smashed beef sauce and a sleeve of crumpled saltine crackers I began to well up with tears. At this point I’m sobbing uncontrollable, while my mom is still screaming at me about spilling my food because I wasn’t careful. She continues to pile on the verbal punishment even as she cleaned up the mess. Meanwhile I was having a short memorial service in my mind for the lost Boyardee soldiers. The entire time she was talking I’m wiping away tears. When I reconciled in my mind and vowed to never again go for a leprechaun heel click while carrying food downstairs I stopped crying and got up. Now I was alone and hungry and would be forced to sit for the next two hours thinking about how tasty that ravioli and crackers would have been. My mom, satisfied that her stern lecture had made sense to me, walked back upstairs. Boy-ardee, was she wrong—This fat boy just wanted his ravioli.
Punishments and rewards are often times utilized to reach desired outcomes. (In all other instances consequences of outcomes don’t correlate to the actions of the behaviors that led to the outcomes. This is just a complicated way of saying sometimes we have no clue why we are punished or rewarded!) In a currency driven society, rewards are almost primarily reduced to cash compensation. But cash is not the cure for everyone. Some people like to have paid days off, more creative freedom, or organizational poll position. Punishments are more memorable because they tend to spark more intense emotions. Think about the concept of risk aversion. If I told you that I would give you $50 for cutting my grass and you never cut the grass, oh well, that’s just 50 bucks you never earned. But, what if I gave you $50 upfront and you still didn’t cut my grass. This time I’m coming to your house and getting my $50 back from you; essentially I’m taking it away even though you feel attached to it. That creates negative emotions and research has concluded that we react more memorably to these situations. The bank owns my mortgaged house and rewards me each month by allowing me the live there for another month after a payment is received. However, if I fail to make enough payments, I’m homeless and the negative feelings associated with that are felt for a lifetime.
Rewards and punishments are not a one size fits all model. Instead, they are more about knowing the individual and their motivations; even if these motivations have absolutely nothing to do with your organization’s mission. Aligning your rewards and punishments in a way that focuses on the individual’s core values is a surefire way to be impactful when distributing them. Most of us work within strict systems for formal reward and punishment processes. These are not necessarily the focus of my intent here. Using corporate bureaucracy as a crutch for uniform distribution of rewards and punishments will leave you with the status quo. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time! Challenge yourself to not lose sight of the fact that policies are just a small percentage of opportunities to reinforce the consequences of behaviors.
Additionally, pay attention to the response that you get when reinforcing behaviors. Specifically, concerning punishment, if the punishment doesn’t evoke a change in future behaviors, you have either given the perception that you will not follow through with your discipline measures or the discipline is in some twisted way what they want. Also, like fat me, there are those times when the outcomes of the behaviors are enough and the dissatisfaction alone is punitive beyond any conceived reprimand. Behaviors, not personalities or inherently bad people, are what lead to the undesirable outcomes that affect profit margins. Finding the thing that most appropriately and quickly changes the behaviors in each individual has to be our focus.
Positive and Negative reinforcements are our best tools for modifying behavior, however, we underutilize them and, when we do give them a whirl, miss the mark with our people because we forget that consequences, whether rewards or punishments, have to be emotional. Our human side of being managers has to remember that people have lasting memories of the bad times and everybody is motivated by something they perceive as good; think ravioli!
Still Crying over Spilt Ravioli,