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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Reward the behavior you want to see, January, 5, 2007, 7C.

Webster’s dictionary defines “folly” as: “lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight; a foolish act or idea; and an excessively costly or unprofitable undertaking.”  It was with that term in mind that Steven Kerr titled his 1975 management writing, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.”  Kerr’s article has become a classic in the academic and applied management literature because it clearly describes common mistakes that all types of organizations make when trying to promote and reward desired employee behaviors.

In his article, Kerr explained why politicians desire vagueness, why soldiers fought differently in WWII and Vietnam, why doctors prescribe medicines when they might not be needed, why research universities have professors less interested in teaching than research, why consultants rarely get poor evaluations, why true team players are so rare to find in high-level team sports, and why businesses encounter a variety of performance and expectations problems.

Kerr describes common mistakes that managers make using the principles of operant conditioning, which involves shaping behaviors through the use of rewards and punishments.  Operant conditioning is how animals learn to perform tricks and how people learn many of the things they do everyday.  Behaviors that are followed with positive or desirable outcomes tend to happen again.  Negative outcomes diminish the likelihood of their preceding behaviors from occurring again.  Operant conditioning posits that behaviors occur or do not occur as the result of the rewards associated with the behaviors.

The “folly” of which many organizations are guilty involves expecting one behavior to occur, while actually rewarding another.  This is analogous to expecting a trained dog to sit up and beg when it has learned through experience that rolling over and barking are the behaviors that actually earn the treats.  As long as the dog’s desired rewards come only from rolling over and barking, it would be folly to expect another trick.  Likewise, organizations that hope for certain behaviors from workers but actually reward others are engaging in folly.

It is also folly to hope for behaviors to occur when the rewards are not desired.  Pets are trained to behave in desirable ways by giving them rewards that they crave.  Dog treats, table scraps, praise, attention, and affection can be used to get dogs to learn tricks; gold watches, corner offices, pay bonuses, and new job titles have little motivating power for dogs.  Also, when past experiences show that the promised rewards are seldom actually given, the rewards can lose their motivating power.

Managers and organizational leaders should examine the missions, goals, and reward systems of their organizations to ensure that the desired employee behaviors are the rewarded behaviors.  If cooperation, exceptional performance, customer relations, loyalty, open communication, ownership, creativity, employee input, and innovation are desired, they must be rewarded—and the rewards must be things that workers want and that they know they will receive by performing.  The behavior that is rewarded is the behavior that occurs. It is folly to think, and reward, otherwise.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved