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THE 4:1 SYNDROME – AND THE REVERSE
Many of the folks we advise on Consequences and reinforcement react initially as if we were asking them to learn a new language over the weekend (which, in a sense, we are). Over the years we have heard a variety of “logical” and traditional complaints against concentrating on “externals.”
First of all, many managers resist the idea of altering Consequences because, as I said before, it gives them an easy out: it enables them to shift the blame for falling productivity entirely onto the “bad” worker’s shoulders. It’s the old “pass the buck” routine perfected in military circles, and often (and disastrously) used in many other social circles as well. The general yells at the colonel and the colonel yells at the lieutenant, and the lieutenant, whose squad is responsible for the snafu, doesn’t ask himself, “How can I get these guys moving?” Instead he just yells at the private. And nothing changes.
Secondly, as I hinted at before, many managers are uncomfortable about manipulating Consequences because they don’t like the idea of “manipulation” itself. It has a real bad press, that word. If you’re manipulating somebody, it means you’re pulling his strings when he doesn’t know it; it means you’re putting one over on him. And nobody likes to do that. As least nobody like to be thought of as doing it. In fact, we all manipulate each other all the time. One of the dictionary meanings of “manipulate” is simply “to manage or utilize skillfully.” When a line manager increases the productivity of his people by 12 percent with the promise of an end-of-year bonus, isn’t he manipulating them? When a coach gets superhuman effort out of a bunch of mere humans by threatening them with two hundred pushups each, isn’t that manipulation? Sure it is. It’s just not recognized as such. Sometimes I think that, in business, managers are less afraid of being manipulative than of carrying around the name.
A final reason that the use of Consequences is rare in business is that many hard-nosed managers are categorically opposed to giving out positive reinforcement because they feel that this will cause their people to lose “respect” for them, or because they feel there’s no reason to reward someone for doing something that he’s supposed to be doing anyway. This last objection to the idea of changing Consequences is extremely common among managers who have worked their way up the hard way, and think everybody else should, too.
You know the kind of guy I mean. He’s got one string on his violin, and it plays “Nobody gave me nothing.” He got dumped on for thirty years by people who retired five years ago, and now he’s in charge of a bunch of junior managers who weren’t even born thirty years ago, and he’s going to make them pay for the stupidities of the last generation. No matter how good they are, he got his ass kicked, and so will they.
This unwillingness to reward (to positively reinforce) good behavior is probably the single most important reason behind certain managers’ inability to effect change in their people. It’s also a critical factor in the failure of most “human management” programs to address the real day-to-day problems of operating businesses. I said earlier that what we add to those programs is the critical element of motivation. One of the most innovative, and consistently effective, features of our motivation approach is that we encourage positive reinforcement not just for “superior” work but for so-called “normal” behavior as well. In many firms that’s considered a “radical,” even dangerous idea.
In our programs we talk about a “4:1 Syndrome.” In most business situations, and indeed in most human situations, we feel that, given reasonably clear directions about what they’re supposed to be doing, most people will do a good job about four times as frequently as they will do a below-par or simply lousy job. People who screw up their basic tasks more frequently then that just don’t last very long, so that it makes sense to assume that, other things being equal, the average person is going to perform his or her work at least adequately about 80 percent of the time.
Now, assuming that managers want good rather then bad behavior, assuming they want productivity and performance to remain at least adequate at all times, they should reinforce people in approximately the same proportion as the good and bad Behaviors that they see. It’s common sense, isn’t it? The person who works well four days out of five ought to be praised four times as often as he’s dumped on.
But guess what? That’s exactly the opposite of what happens.
In most businesses, reinforcement appears as a pernicious mirror image of behavior, rather than an accurate gauge of its effectiveness. A line supervisor will work well 80 percent of the time, but 80 percent of the comments that his plant manager makes to him will focus on that 20 percent of the time that he is performing under par! The 80 percent of the time that he works well will simply go by without comment, because that’s what he’s “supposed” to be doing.
Back in 1970, when I was quarterbacking for the New York Giants, the team owner, a quiet, contemplative man named Wellington Mara, gave a midseason talk that I will never forget. At that point our record for the season was 0-3, the third loss having been to New Orleans a couple of days before. We had played good ball against them – not great ball, but good ball – and lost because of what films later showed was clearly an official’s incorrect call. No matter. We knew we had really won that game, and so did Wellington Mara. He told us that straight off, and then he told us that he knew we were a solid ball club, and that someday – maybe next Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles – we were going to turn this slow start around and make it to the playoffs.
It was a solid, simple, low-key speech that, in retrospect, typifies for me what motivation ought to be about. Mara wasn’t talking to superstars, and he knew it. He was talking to a group of hard-working guys who, in their last time on the field, had performed “at least adequately,” and had gotten no strokes at all for it. He gave us those strokes. With the simple confidence he projected, he let us know that the 4:1 performance syndrome was real, and that we were, most of the time, doing our jobs pretty well. No rah-rah. No “Let’s do better next time.” Just the facts and a quiet thank you.
With Mara’s words in our minds, we took the field against Philadelphia the following Sunday and beat them 30-23. It was the first in a string of victories that would get us second place that year in the NFC eastern division with a 9-5 record. No champagne parties. But all in all not a bad showing. And a lot of it due, I’m convinced, to Mara’s timely encouragement.
That kind of thing is so rate, in business as well as sports, that it stands out dramatically when it happens. Which is pretty weird when you consider the good effects it can have when it’s used.
Now, I don’t mean you should praise people for doing nothing, or that you should let lousy performance get by. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a worker’s lack of performance, and, in fact, if you don’t do that, he’s going to screw up even more. But what about the adequate 80 percent? Isn’t it illogical to jump on him when he’s doing badly and ignore him when he’s doing well? Isn’t that going to give him the idea that, as long as he doesn’t visibly and flagrantly screw up, nobody is going to notice that he’s there? And isn’t there a possibility that, since we all crave attention of some sort, he will actually be encouraged to perform badly, because bad performance at least gets him noticed?
I’m not being facetious, although a traditionally trained manager might think so. In our productivity consulting business we continually study the effects of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and no reinforcement, and we come continually to the same conclusions. We will speak in some detail about these in the chapter on Consequences, but the basic facts are these:
Behavior that is reinforced by positive Consequences tends to continue or to increase. If your child cleans up her room without being asked and you reward her by taking her to Baskin-Robbins, she will clean the room again. If a plant supervisor implements an effective new preventive maintenance system and the vice-president of his division sends him an appreciative letter, that system will be checked and updated.
Behavior that is demotivated by negative Consequences tends to decrease. There are some wrinkles to this basic observation, which we’ll iron out in a section on the “Punishment Effect” at another time, but the central observation is valid. If the child keeps her room messy for a week and you deprive her of weekend TV privileges until it is clean, the chances are that some picking up will begin before the Smurfs show starts on Saturday morning. If the vice-president calls the supervisor on the carpet for having no sound PM policy, he will look to that deficiency in the near future.
Good, productive Behaviors that are not reinforced in any way tend to decrease over time. This is what we call the “Extinction Effect,” and it is of enormous importance to anyone who wishes to motivate others. If your child cleans her room and you say nothing because she’s “supposed to keep it clean and you don’t want to spoil her,” don’t look for it to be cleaned again next week. If the plant manager’s Herculean effort is seen by top management as “just part of his job description,” expect Hercules to turn into Tom Thumb. The point is infrequently noticed: nobody will continue to perform well unless you reinforce his motivation to do so. You’ve got to keep making that difference.
Because Extinction is lurking around every behavioral corner in human interaction, and because positive reinforcement is the only way to combat its ill effects, I’ll speak a great deal in these articles about how to achieve effective reinforcement of desirable Behaviors – especially when those Behaviors are thought to be “givens.” It has been our experience in a wide range of different industries that today’s given, if it is taken for granted, inevitably turns into a forgotten: the doleful results of that process are today everywhere evident in American industry. I firmly believe that one of the American business community’s principal challenges in this decade is to overcome the traditional managerial view that “you don’t reward somebody for doing what he’s supposed to do,” and to move toward a management dynamic in which there is just as much energy expended in keeping the up side up as in keeping the down side down.
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