Reinforcing Performance Fairly

The following article is excerpted from a lecture by Prem Chopra at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga in September 2006. The text of the entire lecture can be found in Masters of the Game: Reaching Beyond the Nexus to Success and Happiness.

Reinforcement with Tough Love

It is unwise to work for companies that have inequitable reward systems, or to tolerate such systems in companies you manage or lead. Let’s say one of your subordinates is incompetent, such as an office assistant who does sub-standard work, is lazy and uninterested in the assigned tasks. Despite receiving repeated training and warning, her performance and attendance is still unacceptable. What should you do? What if she’s a single mother with two kids, and it’s almost Christmas time. What would you do? If you were the manager, would you keep this person in the job or would you terminate her?

We had such a situation with an employee who reported to one of my managers. The manager told me that she should be fired, but he did not feel right doing it, particularly, since Christmas was coming. Our management team reviewed the company’s purpose, goals, staffing needs and our budget, and the manager re-confirmed that this employee did not fit in his organization, she would not improve, and there was no future for her in the company. But he still refused to fire her. So, here is the solution we came up with. I asked the manager to step into my office so we could talk in private. “Look,” I said, “This is how much you’re paid, and this is how much she is paid. If you feel so strongly about keeping her on, we will take this amount from your salary and use it to pay her. That way neither your wishes, nor the company’s objectives will be compromised”

Needless to say, the manager walked right out of the office and terminated the employee. You see, people do not think of the organization’s money as their own. If they did, they would make more prudent decisions. If you have true empathy for someone and you’re concerned about their financial welfare, then why not share some of your own money with them? Why use the company’s money to satisfy your personal conscience, when you are unwilling to spend your own for the same purpose? In the case of this assistant, we gave her a generous severance package.

The lesson here is: don’t reinforce negative behavior with positive rewards. When you are dealing with children, do you scold them when they misbehave and then bribe them with candy so they won’t do it again? Do you think the child remembers the short reprimand or the lingering sweetness of the candy? No, you don’t want to reinforce negative behavior. You don’t want to keep paying people to produce defective products, and you don’t want to pay executives for making the wrong and, sometimes, unethical decisions.

Fair and balanced corrective action, or tough love, is very important. Organizations fail when companies or individuals forget their purpose and their commitment to quality. Products must fulfill a certain quality standard, and we must perform all the necessary actions to fulfill those standards. Otherwise, the quality fails and the business fails. You must honestly apply whatever purposeful actions that are required to meet or exceed those quality standards. This is what customers expect. And, this is purposeful action

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