What Do We Choose to Reward and Punish?

I’ve been following the issues and the punishments in the college admissions scandal. If you’re not based in the US, you might have missed this. The idea is that wealthy parents bribed and cheated their children’s way into elite schools.

I’m not going to discuss the scandal itself. This post is about understanding the culture this scandal exposes.

Culture is what we can discuss, how we treat each other, and what we reward. The college admissions scandal is (at least) about how we treat each other and what we reward. And, I see many similarities to what happens in organizations.

See Organizational Culture

I have seen founders/managers who hire many people from their elite alma mater. (Somehow, I managed to get jobs at these companies without having gone to an elite school. That’s the culture we discuss when we talk about the “American Dream.”) When I joined these companies, I learned several things about what the managers claimed the culture was:

  • “We’re a meritocracy. We hire and promote based on your capabilities.”
  • “Do well and we’ll give you more interesting work.”
  • “We won’t punish you for making a mistake; we’ll punish you for not thinking outside the box.”

Remember, this is what the companies claimed their culture was. In fact, the culture was exactly the opposite. How could I tell? By what the managers thought was acceptable to discuss, what they rewarded and punished.

The companies rewarded people with similar backgrounds. They were suspicious of me. (I often brought some different abilities and experiences to the work. That’s why they hired me.) I was often the only woman. I was the extrovert. Their education and position didn’t intimidate me. Along the way, I learned these truths:

  • I had to fight for reasonable raises.
  • I had to fight for more interesting work.
  • I had to defend my outside-the-box thinking.

What the companies said they rewarded was what they punished. Our stated culture is not the actual culture. (Most of the people meant well—they weren’t mean by design. I had to show them my data for them to see the reality. And, yes, I persevered to make sure they saw my reality!)

 Choose What to Reward and Punish

In organizations, we decide what to reward and punish. Too often, we reward fire-fighting and heroism. (I’m working on exposing those problems in the Modern Management Made Easy books.)

Many organizations claim they use meritocracy to reward people. Here’s an analogy. Have you ever seen a gymnastics meet, ballroom dancing, or figure skating competition?

Human beings, people, judge those competitions. These people are susceptible to all kinds of fallacies in their thinking. If you’ve ever seen competitors soar during competition and then not achieve a high-enough score, you saw a confirmation form of a cognitive bias. The judges didn’t expect the competitors to succeed. The judges didn’t assess the merit correctly.

This is exactly what happens when you hire people at work. You judge them, based on limited information. You decide whether or not to offer them a job based on that limited information. And, when you attempt to use a performance review to evaluate a single person’s performance, you do exactly the same thing. You judge them. And, you decide which behaviors to reward and punish.

Where Does This Leave Us for Rewards or Punishment?

I prefer to see team-based rewards for work, where we want people to collaborate. Very few people work alone to achieve anything. I’ve relied on people inside and outside my teams to succeed.

As for punishment, especially for the college admissions scandal? You might want to read Five Things About Deterrence. The first point makes a ton of sense to me: what is the expectation that the people doing something wrong will get caught? The more certainty, the more likely the people are to not do this thing.

For work, I like to think about punishment and rewards in this way:

  • How clearly can we define what the right things and the wrong things are? We might think the boundaries are clear. In my experience, the boundaries are often quite fuzzy.
  • How do we make it easy for people to do the right things?
  • How do we make it more difficult for people to do the wrong things?

I assume people want to do the right thing more often at work. Yes, I’m a Theory Y person.

Dear readers, this is an unusual question of the week: What do we choose to reward or punish?

5 thoughts on “What Do We Choose to Reward and Punish?

  1. agileidiot

    It was a good read Joanna until I reached the comment – I am a “Theory Y” person. Then I was ROFLOL. I have been asking this question on people evaluating themselves on whether they are “Theory X or Y” for the last several years in my classes and workshops. Not one, in the 1000’s asked, not one has rated themselves as “Theory X” – some manager types said I am “Theory Y” but the people I manage are “Theory Y”. Here is my hypothesis – there are no “Theory X” people – it is a made up construct for putting people in boxes and telling them what to do. And you, my lady, are not special in any way, just human as we all are…

    1. Johanna Post author

      My dear “AI”, because I’m not going to call you an idiot. I have met people who proudly describe themselves as Theory X managers. (My father is one.) On the other hand, he was not managing knowledge workers, but they were craftspeople.

      I know of many other managers who say things like this, “I would like to be more Theory Y but I can’t yet trust people to …” They do manage knowledge workers.

      I am definitely human, with my own foibles. I totally agree with you on that.

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