Tag Archives: Reinforcement

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.”

Why Leaders Should Be More Like Ebenezer Scrooge: A Five Step Process

a_christmas_carolThe story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of my favorite holiday traditions. As much as I’d like to say that I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, in truth I read it once, really liked it, and have since made a ritual of watching Scrooged with Bill Murray. With every viewing of this movie plus the multitude of other renditions, I wonder why calling someone a “Scrooge” is such a bad thing.

As leaders, we should strive to be Scrooges. If this sounds wrong that’s because you are focusing on the pre-Christmas Ebenezer. That guy is a selfish, egotistical miser who says things like, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be…buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” But this is not the message of A Christmas Carol, it is simply the beginning.

A Christmas Carol is the story of self-improvement. It’s about learning from your past, having foresight into your future, and making the changes necessary in the present. This is not a feel-good self-affirmation; it’s a motivator to introspectively pick apart our flaws and work towards becoming a better person.

We can’t be forced to change our ways. There is no Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come to serve as a catalyst for evolving. Our fate will not be on display to pressure us into an epiphany. All we have is inner drive. Unfortunately, the determination to change is not enough; our bad habits are too embedded into our psyche. Therefore, according to Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, we need to follow these five steps to make positive behavioral changes that stick.

  1. Precontemplation. In this first stage, we are Scrooge on December 23rd–making a change has been the farthest thing from our mind. The signs have been all around us, but we’ve fought or just ignored them.
  2. Contemplation. In this stage we’ve begun to think about the need to change a behavior. The impetus is different for everyone. For some it takes a particular event to wake us up, like Scrooge’s surprise visit from his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. For others it involves years of deliberation.
  3. Determination. Now we begin to mentally prepare for action. While Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning with a new outlook on life, we may download a new calendar app or buy running shoes. This stage involves mapping out our plan of attack and scheduling a start date. This culmination of willpower is the resolve to change and the fuel needed to attain your goals.
  4. Action. Time to activate your plan. Give Bob Cratchit a raise. Get medical assistance for Tiny Tim. Start moving!
  5. Maintenance. Day 1 of a new behavior is easy; true change takes persistence. Scrooge wasn’t just a more virtuous person on December 25th. As the book states, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more… He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man…” Maintenance involves continuing to chase your goal every day, with every decision, and every deed. It requires that we uphold a high life-condition where our changed belief continues to manifest as action. Create short milestones so you can appreciate the sense of accomplishment and reward yourself along the way.

Want to be a better leader? Be a Scrooge—remain in a constant state of self-improvement. Want to be a better leader? Be a Jacob Marley—guide others towards elevating their skills and performance. And if you really want to be a better leader, be a Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come—foster a culture where people can learn from their mistakes, understand the repercussions, and make changes before its too late. Or say, “Ba-Hum-Bug” and suffer the consequences.

Luke Cage on Quantifiable Coolness and How It Can Benefit Leaders

luke-cageHave you ever considered whether others see you as cool? This may sound like a question more geared to your high school years, but being perceived as cool may be something to consider as a leader, as well. That’s why I strive to be like Luke Cage.

Luke Cage is the next superhero to get a Netflix miniseries. Set in the same world as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Cage underwent body-wide enhancement that gave him superhuman strength and durability. While neat, this is not the basis for Cage’s coolness. First introduced in the 1972 comic Hero for Hire #1, Luke Cage is based upon the popular Blaxploitation films of the time. He’s like a bullet-proof Superfly or a super strong Shaft…and who is cooler than Superfly and Shaft? Cage has since protected the people of Harlem with self-assurance, style, and swagger.

It may sound ambiguous choosing Cage as a personification of cool, but until recently, this term has possessed an elusive, know-it-when-we-see-it quality. Recent advances in neuroscience have determined that cool is more quantifiable than previously believed. Steven Quartz and Anette Asp from the California Institute of Technology ran brain scans on people who viewed items that were deemed “cool” or “uncool.” The cooler the participant found the item to be, the more active the brain scan became. As a result, the researchers reason that the participants were responding to how they thought the product would boost their esteem in the eyes of others.

Cool turns out to be a strange kind of economic value that our brains see in products that enhance our social image. This abstract good—social approval, reputation, esteem, or status—plays a central role in our motivation and behavior, and it is the currency that drives much of our economy and our consumption.—Steven Quartz and Anette Asp, Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World

Additional research has narrowed-down the concept of cool to such socially desirable attributes as talent, influence, status, and being socially connected (Don’t these attributes also describe leaders?). These targets may be in constant flux, but the underlying idea remains that people want to feel accepted.

Speaking for myself, becoming cool is a ship that sailed long ago. The more I’ve tried to attain it, the less cool I feel. Thankfully, as leaders, we don’t have to be cool to help shape a cool culture. A few tips include:

  • Present yourself in a positive way. This includes owning your good and bad qualities.
  • Be mindful of how your actions influence others. Negativity compels others to suppress their true intents.
  • You know who people view as cool? The person they meet on their first day of work who makes them feel welcome. Be the leader who sets this tone.
  • Exhibit confidence through your actions, appearance, and body language.
  • While it may not have been cool for your high school teacher to praise your work, it is exceedingly cool for you, the supervisor, to heap acclaim.
  • Finally, and most importantly, there are few things less cool then pretending to be something you aren’t. Find your own style.

While we can’t all be as cool as Luke Cage, we can maximize the coolness of our workplace. Define the attributes that make someone cool in your company. Then act like it and encourage those who do the same. If you can manage it, “Sweet Christmas,” as Cage is known to say.

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.

Is No News Really Good News? Don Cheadle on Feedback

Don CheadleEver heard the saying, “No news is good news?” This may hold true in some situations but it is not a leadership mantra I recommend. Just last week, an employee was in my office complaining that she was given some harsh critiques from her supervisor. She was bothered by the content but even more upset that in 18 months of work, she’s never received any feedback, good or bad. Therefore, as far as she was concerned, she was doing a fine job. Don Cheadle experienced the same thing.

Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle is renown for his work on Devil in a Blue Dress, Ocean’s Eleven, House of Lies, Iron Man, and one of my favorites, The Rat Pack. He’s about to be known as a great director, as well. Cheadle is currently finishing his directorial debut in a biopic on legendary jazz musician Miles Davis entitled Miles Ahead.

To grow into the director role, Cheadle had to overcome a steep learning curve. One issue revolved around the topic of communication. For the first week of filming, Cheadle would rush through shots because he knew how much needed to get done by the end of day. Sometimes this anxiety was warranted, but many times he had the time to slow down without knowing it. As Cheadle discussed in a recent interview, this triggered a conversation with his producer.

She said, ‘Look, if I don’t come up to you and say there’s a problem, there’s not a problem.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’m glad you said that to me because this is a communication thing. I can’t work in a negative. You have to come up to me and say we’re good, because if I don’t hear that, I’m just in panic mode. I don’t work off of what you aren’t telling me. I need you to tell me.’

There are many studies touting the value of positive reinforcement. In one, college students gave speeches to an audience that was either 1) nodding and smiling or 2) shaking their heads, furrowing their eyebrows, and crossing their arms. As expected, those in the “nodding and smiling” group scored higher than their counterparts. But what happens when there’s no reinforcement?

A lack of communication can mean a few things. The first is what my employee above experienced – “no feedback must mean I’m doing okay.” Then there’s Cheadle’s feeling that no feedback results in panic. Finally, there’s the individual who has told me, “No feedback means the leader doesn’t care… so why should I?”

Solving the communication conundrum is an easy fix. When delivering both good or bad news, you need to:

  • Be specific. Provide a detailed description of the situation and how happy/concerned you are with their performance.
  • Be timely. It’s only effective if it’s fresh.
  • Be sincere. Your team knows when you’re lying so say what you mean.
  • Be consistent. Performance improvement is gradual. Recognize the small steps that lead to overall improvement and address the small drops before someone fails beyond repair.
  • Be unpredictable. When feedback becomes too expected, it loses its impact. Provide frequent input that is randomly dispersed.

Don’t be laissez faire with your leadership. Take an active role in your team’s development and progress. Provide constant feedback and follow up so they always know where they stand. After all, they can’t work off of what you aren’t telling them.