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The following article
was written by Coleman Patterson and
appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.
Recognizing only mistakes doesn't improve
work, July 21, 2006, 7D.
once in a while, educators discover an exceptional technique
for teaching students new concepts or ideas. Once the
technique has been proven consistent and effective, it is
usually filed away for future use with new groups of
students. One of the most effective and exceptional
techniques to arise in management education in the past two
decades has recently fallen out of favor with management
educators—it was too effective.
exercise would begin with the selection of two volunteers
from a classroom. The volunteers were asked to leave the
room while directions were given to the remaining students.
The students were told that the volunteers were going to
come into the class one at a time and perform a designated
task in the room. Typically, the task chosen for the
volunteers was to erase something from the chalkboard, turn
off the lights, or throw away some paper. The students in
the classroom were to help the volunteers figure out their
tasks by giving them performance feedback.
first volunteer entered the classroom, he or she was told
that there was a predefined task to be performed in the
classroom and that the classmates would help the volunteer
figure out what it is. As the first volunteer moved toward
the task, classmates would clap, cheer, and rally-on their
worker. When the volunteer moved away from the task or
stood still, the students in the class would go stone-faced
and cease providing encouragement. About 90% of the time,
the first volunteer would figure out his or her task and
complete it successfully.
second volunteer entered the classroom, the same
instructions were given. In this second condition, however,
the volunteer was only recognized with booing, hissing, and
reprimands when he or she moved away from the task. If the
volunteer moved toward the task or stood still, the
classmates would go stone-faced and not provide any
feedback. Sometimes the volunteers unknowingly completed
the task amidst a random series of guesses and actions.
About 90% of the time, the second volunteer would give up in
disgust and discouragement—it was always a painful and
awkward experience to watch (which is why the exercise has
fallen out of favor with educators).
teaching technique shows the effects of reward and
punishment feedback for people working on a task. When
positive and rewarding feedback is provided to workers, it
helps guide and direct their actions toward accomplishment
of the right things. Once the first volunteer realized that
the class was providing encouragement and reward for certain
behaviors and actions, performance quickly followed.
However, when the only recognition given to the worker was
an acknowledgement that he or she was doing something wrong,
feelings of confusion, discouragement, and helplessness
arose. By only recognizing deficiencies and incorrect
actions, the classmates were unable to get the second
volunteer to perform—and in the process, harmed the
volunteer’s motivation, commitment, and self-esteem.
Organizational leaders need to learn from outcomes of this
teaching technique and try to use more reward and less
punishment feedback to bring about optimal performance from
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