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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.

Every 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. 

The 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.

When the 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. 

When the 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).

This 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 their people.

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