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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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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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