Tag Archives: Incentive

The Don Rickles School of Praise: When There’s Too Much of a Good Thing

Last week I wrote about the business case for being nice. I stand by the article and the cited research flaunting the benefits of leadership based in trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation; however, with the passing of legendary comedian Don Rickles, I’d like to honor his memory by providing a counter argument—the business case for not being so nice. More specifically, why we should be more discerning when doling out praise.

In today’s culture, leaders are encouraged to instill confidence, build self-esteem, and offer regular praise so as to encourage employees to believe in themselves. This “feel good” behavior creates a nice environment, but “nice” is not synonymous with “engaging,” “productive,” or “dynamic.” In fact, research shows that praise may actually undermine success.

I always rib people, but nobody ever gives me a hard time. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re afraid of what I might say. There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.—Don Rickles

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people are praised for ‘doing their own thing,’ they lose interest in the activity once the praise stops. Where they may have once felt satisfaction with the intrinsically rewarding enjoyment of performing the activity, the praise replaced the intrinsic reward with a contingent, external incentive, thus reducing the appeal of the intrinsic reward. As a result, expecting praise can soon make that thing seem not worth doing if you are not receiving the praise.

In another study published in Educational Leadership, people praised for personal attributes (being smart, talented, etc) were more easily discouraged with complex tasks and they stopped making an effort much sooner than those praised for ‘working hard’. Also, when praised for effort, participants overwhelmingly chose the more challenging task, while those praised for intelligence chose the easy test.

And according to Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Cornell University, unpraised individuals show higher levels of confidence, while the overpraised are more likely to lie or exaggerate to make their performance sound better. Praise becomes addictive; once they get it, they need it and cannot function without it.

They always use the word ‘insult’ with me, but I don’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I did. I make fun of everybody and exaggerate all our insecurities.—Don Rickles

Before you are completely turned off from delivering praise (and decide to follow the Don Rickles’ style of ‘compliments’), the lesson here is not to withhold support or encouragement; what’s key is making sure the praise you deliver is accomplishing your intended purpose and being conveyed in the most impactful manner. A few ways you can maximize your praise include:

  • Be selective with praise. A compliment is more meaningful when it is kept sacred. If you do it all the time, it has less potency and creates an atmosphere of dependency. As David “Father of Advertising” Ogilvy says, it should be just uncommon enough to make each instance a momentous occasion.
  • Focus on what is within a person’s control. Don’t bother heaping compliments on characteristics that come natural; emphasis what they can consciously influence and control.
  • Avoid applause for easy tasks. A study found that people praised for an achievement that comes easily believe either 1) the praiser is not smart enough to realize how easy the task is or 2) the praiser thinks the prasiee is not smart.
  • Don’t over-praise for doing something they should be doing anyway. Recognize them for going above and beyond or finding a new way to complete a task, otherwise you are just reinforcing the minimum expectations of the job.
  • Deliver razor-sharp praise. Ambiguous, broad statements like, “You are great,” are worthless. Compliments should be specific and describe a detailed account of what they did well.

Don Rickles, derisively nicknamed Mr. Warmth, was always quick with an insult. He could disarm the most caustic audience with the most politically correctless jab. The greatest praise he offered was a verbal barb… and people begged Rickles to make fun of them. Of course, context matters so we should not try to emulate his form of tribute. Instead, use praise to build people up, but, at the same time, don’t rely on it as your primary form of communication. Keep it pointed, make it meaningful, and (I cannot stress this enough) don’t think “What would Rickles say.”

Are You Weird Enough? Three Ways to Stand Out

This article was originally published on lifehack.org.

On the infinite list of traits that make people successful leaders, there’s one that is too often overlooked—being weird. Why do we disregard the power that comes from being different? It is time to embrace what makes us weird and incorporate it into our lives.

To be labeled a weirdo should be synonymous with being an innovator, a thought leader, an entrepreneur. It is weird to see something and think, “I can make that better.” It is weird to contemplate a solution for a plan that seems to be working just fine. It is weird to speak out against popular opinion with a new, contradictory idea. These are not things “normal” people do.

To make weird a part of our company culture, it helps to specify what we’re talking about. Being weird is not about bucking the norm simply for the sake of being different or seeking attention. Anyone can wear unusual clothes or ironically play a kazoo. In fact, if you start any initiative with the thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be weird,” then you are missing the point.

I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.—Frank Zappa

The intent of embracing your weirdness is to unleash the unconventional thoughts you are already having. We all have an inner drive to accomplish goals that are daring and innovative and progressive. However embracing your weirdness is more than feeling this inner drive; it involves putting action behind your thoughts. If you’re ready to take on this challenge, here are three practices to get you started:

#1 Acknowledge that you have issues

I had a mentor who started meetings with each person stating their “issues.” This lighthearted exercise was intended to break down social barriers and generate social cohesion. When I was asked this in my first week on the job, I said that I don’t have issues. The room laughed knowing that we all have issues.

These issues are the individual quirks that make us different. It can include something as simple as your predilection for starting every day singing a Neil Diamond song or your ability to quote every line from The Big Lebowski or that you’ve watched so much Walking Dead you create an emergency exit strategy whenever entering a room… or maybe that’s just me.

Where’s your will to be weird?—Jim Morrison

The point is that we must own our weirdness before we have leverage it. Admittedly, this can be an uncomfortable exercise—it’s engrained in us since childhood that weirdness is a bad thing. Just keep reminding yourself that people who blend it, do not stand out.

#2 Stop being boring

If this sounds too easy, that’s because it is. You can actively will yourself into being weirder simply by making the effort to be more interesting. A few suggestions:

  • watch less TV, or at least watch a greater variety of shows
  • do not list “checking your social media” as a hobby
  • try different restaurants
  • engage in substantive conversations, and do not talk about the weather… ever!
  • create a bucket list of things to do, new skills to learn, and places to go
  • stray from mainstream media
  • engage in one remarkable activity every weekend (or at least every month)
  • stop expecting to be entertained by others
  • and stop expecting others to do all talking

It’s good as an artist to always remember to see things in a new, weird way.—Tim Burton

#3 Be the CWO (Chief Weird Officer)

Once you’ve embraced your weirdness, it’s time to strengthen it throughout your organization. Leaders must make an exerted effort to structure their team in a way that nurtures the weird so people can more fully reveal and utilize their talents. This includes fostering a work environment that negates the social stigmas that stifle offbeat creativity. Where imperfection is not just allowed, but encouraged as a means of development and learning. Where sameness is not tolerated. Where speaking up is incentivized, even when they’re wrong.

To bring out the weirdness, leaders can also help those on their team find their niche. In her book Stand Out, esteemed strategy consultant Dorie Clark discussed the need to be recognized as an authority or expert through a strong professional reputation. This can happen by expanding your focus, but more often weirdness is tapped by “niching down” or narrowing focus on a topic. If the leader exposes team members to a plethora of opportunities to learn and grow, they can find their niche and “weird out” on it.

I always encourage young people who ask me for advice to be themselves. Whatever is weird about you, whatever weird thing you do to crack up your siblings, that other people at school maybe say, ‘Man, you’re weird,’ that’s the most valuable thing you have. Because if you try to homogenize yourself and act like other people on television or other people in the audition room, then you’re taking away your weirdness.—Nick Offerman

Being weird means putting yourself out there. This involves a degree of vulnerability and a willingness to take on risk. “Normal” people stifle these insecurities; that’s what makes them normal. But those who embrace their weirdness are eager to break through the “we’ve always done it that way” mindset. It may feel lonely at times, but it is ultimately more fulfilling and leads to bigger results. As they say, “Go weird or go home.”

The Business Case for Team-Based Incentives with Atlanta Falcon’s Owner Arthur Blank

You getting Super Bowl fever? As a perpetual supporter of the underdog (unless my Steelers are playing), I’ve been reading about Atlanta Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank. Even if you aren’t into football, you will appreciate that before purchasing the Falcons in 2002, Blank was co-founder of The Home Depot.

It may seem commonplace today, but when it was first introduced The Home Depot revolutionized the home improvement business with its one-stop shopping, warehouse concept. Blank then spent 19 years as its president before becoming CEO and co-chairman.

In learning about Blank, an interview last week exhibits one particularly admirable aspect of his leadership philosophy that gives strong hints as to why he has been as successful as he is. After the Falcons won their spot in the Super Bowl, Blank announced that he is flying all 500 Falcon employees to Houston for the game. When asked, “How big is that bill?” he responded:

It’s not about money. It’s about these associates, who were the ones that support our players, our coaches and our franchise… We are a family of businesses that share a set of values and we want to be able to celebrate this with everybody. All the Falcons associates are going because they’re all a part of what it takes to produce a winning team on the field.

This is motivating to the staff on two fronts. Monetarily, they are each receiving a one-in-a-lifetime experience that is far beyond most people’s budgets—between the flight, a ticket to the game (pricing starts at $3,500 per seat), hotel, and food it could easily cost $8,000 per employee.

More impactful, however, is the message of shared success that Blank is conveying. If the team does well, we all do well. These team-based incentives reinforce a company culture of collaboration and cooperation. As a result, team members are more likely to prioritize the shared goals and values of the organization over their personal agendas.

Not convinced? A 2010 study found that employees receiving team-based incentives are more willing to put extra effort into their tasks because they don’t want to let their teammates down. Armstrong and Ryden’s research found that companies with long-term, team-based incentive pay resulted in significantly lower than average employee turnover. And another study found productivity increases of 9-17% relative to companies with individual incentives.

If team-based incentives sound costly (and you aren’t able to send your team to the Super Bowl), don’t worry. Research shows that team-incentive schemes are 26-29% more cost effective than individual incentives. I’m no economists, but spending less and getting more for your money sounds like a competitive advantage.

As leaders, we need to make shared success a part of our culture. Impart the attitude that “we’re all in this together.” Make it a regular part of your communication and back it up with tangible incentives and rewards. The quicker you start, the quicker you’ll be on your way to your national championship.

Motivating though a Variable Schedule (or Why I Watch Bad TV)

seinfeld linkedinIn what appears to be my continuing series on why I can’t stop watching bad TV, I may have finally nailed my compulsion. At first, I diagnosed it as my inability to say no. Then, realizing that a lack of willpower may not be the complete answer, I attributed my television habits to sunk cost where I continued to spend time so as to justify the time already spent. Now, I’m going old school with some classic behavioral psychology.

In the 1930s, legendary Psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning where a person’s behavior changes according to consequences associated with that behavior. For those of you who don’t recall your Psych 101 course, reinforcements are presented to motivate people to repeat particular behaviors. It’s like watching Seinfeld—every episode has a worthwhile movement (reinforcement) that compels you want to watch more (repeated behavior).

skinnerBut what about the television shows that don’t have such a frequent payoff? Skinner would attribute this to its variable schedule, where the response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time. Case in point, I recently had the unfortunate experience of binge watching an entire season of a show that did not deserve so much of my attention. The first episode was enthralling, the rest were not. Looking back, I was on a variable ratio 120 (VR-120) schedule. This means I received reinforcement an average of every 120 minutes. That’s right, the show kept me interested an average of once every other episode—sometimes it reinforced after 45 minutes, sometimes I had to wait 180 minutes. The key is that the timing was unpredictable.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Email?

If this sounds ridiculous, you may be interested to know that offering reinforcements on a variable schedule of rewards is the most effective way to motivate others. Just consider your email habits. Typically, you don’t know when you are going to receive a message so you check your email randomly throughout the day. Every time you check your inbox, a new message acts as a reinforcer for continuing to check your email. This never-ending cycle of checking and sporadically receiving emails feeds your compulsive inbox scrutiny.

Our brains are wired to search for the next reward. A recent neurological study found that our dopamine system works not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but to keep us searching by inducing a semi-stressful response. We are addicted to the anticipation that comes with the next reinforcer, but we are not satisfied with attaining said reinforcer. As a result, we remain susceptible to a variable schedule of reinforcements to propel us towards the next reward.

How You Can Use It

Variable schedules are more than just an explanation for why I watched the first two seasons of Blacklist (and, who are we kidding, will watch the third). It is a powerful leadership tool that will ensure your incentives have the maximum intended impact to encourage others to repeat desired behaviors. Want to try to it?

  • Mix up your schedule. When you conduct your regularly scheduled office laps, do them at different times throughout the day. Chances are good that your team will work at a fairly steady pace throughout the day since they won’t know when you are popping in.
  • Give sporadic praise. Instead of offering praise on a predictable schedule, use a three-variable ratio schedule (VR-3). When they exhibit a behavior that you’d like to encourage, first provide reinforcement after the first time, then four, then two, then five. The instances between reinforcement varies, but there remains an average of three.
  • Keep meeting agendas interesting. When people attend meetings, there’s typically one item they find especially engaging. At the onset of the meeting, provide a bullet-list of agenda items in no particular order. Then, discuss the items in an unanticipated sequence.

In a rare instance of advice, try to be more like a bad television show. Use a variable schedule of rewards to provide an engaging, inspiring experience. Maintain consistency through clear direction with a clear vision and clear expectations but employ a less predictable method of motivating others. It will more effectively get you the results you want and may help you pick better television shows for your Netflix queue.

Another Victim of Sunk Cost Fallacy

blackjackLast month I wrote about my compulsion to complete tasks even when I don’t want to—A Completionist’s Guide to Not Completing. I linked this to my inability to say no when I was in the midst of an activity I didn’t want to perform, like watching every episode of a television series regardless of whether its any longer enjoyable. Upon further reflection (and a less-than-fortunate blackjack incident), I’m feeling less like someone who can’t say no, and more like a victim of sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk cost fallacy is the idea that you should continue to spend money on an initiative, project, product, etc. so as to not waste the money or effort you have already put into it. It’s like sitting at a blackjack table after losing too much money because that next hand will be the one that makes it all worthwhile… hypothetically speaking, of course.

This happens in the workplace all the time. We stress and strain to roll out a new marketing campaign/recruitment tool/equity source only to find it did not have the impact we were anticipating. It’s not necessarily damaging anything (besides the drain on resources), but if it were to disappear tomorrow, no one outside of your team would remember it ever existed. Yet, because so many resources and so much energy went into it, we cannot bear to put it out of its misery, so we expend more resources and energy.

We fall victim to sunk cost fallacy because we are emotionally invested in whatever it is we are trying to accomplish. We’ve spent our departmental budgets, political capital, and precious manpower. We’ve ignored other promising opportunities so we could focus on this project. And we’ve put our reputations on the line. Quitting now would surely make us a loser…wouldn’t it?

I use to think this way—make a mistake and double down until lady luck turns in my favor. Then, in a week-long period, four things happened that changed my view.

  1. I spoke with a leader who incentivizes her team to quit projects midstream if they are going the wrong way. She bonuses failure. Her philosophy is that it is cheaper and more efficient to abandon a dud then to continue pouring resources into it. Time is better spent exploring a new option that actually works.
  2. I finished yet another television show whose first three episodes made me think there would be a payoff to finish the series. There wasn’t.
  3. I re-discovered a research article from Psychological Bulletin where the authors found that the misconceptions associated with sunk cost are something we develop as we get older. Compared to adults, children are much less likely to let unjustifiable optimism take hold because they exhibit more normatively correct behaviors.
  4. And to really hit the point home on sunk cost, I sat down at the wrong blackjack table.

Free yourself from the burden of carrying around an impending fiasco. Conduct frequent assessments to ensure the initiative will have the anticipated results needed to make it worthy of you and your team. Foster a culture where others can tell you that it is going in the wrong direction without having to admit weakness, errors, or ineptitude. Write out pros and cons lists to ensure the pros side remains substantially denser. And, most of all, ignore the blackjack dealers in your life who swear your luck will turnaround when the facts clearly show otherwise.