An ‘A’ for Effort? I Don’t Think So.

leadership leadersI found an interesting read this weekend in the WSJ about going back to the good old days of discipline in schools, before everyone got a star for participation. The author was describing a reunion of one teacher’s students, who years later came to appreciate his strict discipline and hard lessons about performance

Because as children we spend a majority of our time at school, the lessons learned show up in our lives, our workplaces and just about anywhere we connect, interact or do anything. Today, the focus is on self-esteem and making sure no child feels “bad” for a sub-par performance. But how is a reward for mediocrity going to show up in the workplace? If we don’t reward the types of behavior that succeed at work, how are we setting these kids up for success?

I would posit that we are not. Do you give bonuses because someone almost hit the target? No. Does your banker give you a pat on the back when you don’t reach the covenants of your loan? No. Does a stock price go up if the company does not reach their revenue targets? Not usually. So why are we setting our kids up for failure in the real world?

Usually it’s because we hate to confront “people” and especially kids with bad news. No one likes being told, or telling someone they didn’t make the cut. But if we don’t, how will anyone ever understand what it takes to make it? Look at all the amazing things humans are capable of accomplishing. People regularly do outstanding things. But first, someone has to expect that outstanding achievement, that above average performance, the behavior that is above and beyond. And not only expect it, but communicate the request for it in a way that is motivating and inspiring.

This is where it gets tricky. Badgering and berating rarely get the long lasting behavior we are looking for. This approach can work in the short run but over time, it usually produces resentfulness. It also motivates people to do just exactly as they are told in order to avoid more negativity, instead of incenting them to exert their creativity and ability to innovate which is critical to the success of an organization.

I think the answer is consistent expectations of above average performance and clear communication of what that entails. Discussing the rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic are important so people fully understand the implications and potential of their performance.

As leaders, we have to take up where education and parenting left off, and do a little redirect when an employee expects to be patted on the back just for showing up. We can’t give out gold stars or a ribbon for participation. Study after study has shown that when humans can directly tie their behavior to a specific outcome, they will either do more or less of that, depending on whether or not it was positive or negative.

So don’t hesitate to reward the type of behavior you want to see in the workplace. “An A for effort” just doesn’t cut the mustard when you’re trying to run a sustainable business and provide jobs and livelihoods for your employees. Communicate what you expect and give an A for outstanding performance and achievement!