Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Management Features
Dawn Bailey
The focus is on preparation, communication, and inclusion
Julie Winkle Giulioni
Old givens are giving way to new ungivens
Gartner
Few hybrid workers report feeling connected to their organization’s culture
Huw Thomas
A long-awaited expansion of workers’ rights
Gleb Tsipursky
Quality professionals should test their intuitions before deploying internal and external quality initiatives

More Features

Management News
Sept. 28–29, 2022, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA
EPM service provider excels in helping customers work with EPM products
It’s not exactly a labor shortage
Program inspires leaders to consider systems perspective for continuous improvement and innovation
Recent research finds organizations unprepared to manage more complex workforce
Attendees will learn how three top manufacturing companies use quality data to predict and prevent problems, improve efficiency, and reduce costs
More than 40% of directors surveyed cite the ability of companies to execute as one of the biggest threats to improving ESG performance
MIT Sloan study shows that target-independent compensation systems can be superior

More News

Mike Micklewright

Management

When ‘Croc of the Month’ Leads to ‘Employee of the Month’

Rewards programs often do more harm than good

Published: Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 12:57

Our fascination with rewards systems that attempt to get people to comply with the demands of work and short-term good behavior starts early in school. These systems operate without imparting an understanding of good solid principles for the betterment of our community, our place of employment, and ourselves.

A past client of mine gave an “Employee of the Quarter” award that included a cash incentive. A group of employees got together and voted for one of their friends. When he won, the group split the pot and repeated the process the next quarter. Their simple directions read just like the directions on a bottle of shampoo: “Choose. Vote. Cheer. Split. Deposit. Repeat.” Another company had a similar monthly award. Individuals realized that “negative” employees were chosen by management as “winners” as an incentive for behavioral change. Several employees purposefully acted negatively to get the award.

The same thing happens at school, repeatedly, when awards are used as goads to induce behaviors that benefit teachers and do nothing positive for children. My daughter heard another little girl say that she erases shoe skid marks in front of the janitor so that when he sees her do it, he might then nominate her for “Croc of the Month” (COM). Programs like this encourage sucking up, competitiveness, and inadequacy. They do not teach children to do the right thing for the right reason. Good thing this doesn’t happen at work. (Yes, this is sarcasm).

My daughter had a major meltdown one night last week because, for the sixth month in a row, she was not nominated for COM at her school. A school program that singles out one winner and makes all the other children feel like losers is not what she needs, and neither is it what other “losers,” including those living in a dysfunctional family, with learning disabilities, or with attention deficit disorder (ADD) need just to make life easier for the teachers. Perhaps you can understand my and my wife’s anger with such a program. It’s why we both wrote letters to the teacher and the principal as a call for change.

Following is my letter, the principal’s reply, and my rebuttal.

Dear Mrs. Principal and Mrs. Teacher,
The purpose of this letter is to follow up on my wife’s e-mail from Feb. 24 regarding our daughter’s meltdown after once again not being nominated for COM. I will do so from an altogether different perspective, though, than my wife’s.

I write you not only as a concerned parent but also as a professional speaker who talks about the need for organizational systems and practices to support the principles of that same organization, and the damage that can be caused to individuals by subjective reward systems that encourage competition and foster resentment.

I understand that to be nominated and then chosen to be COM, one needs to display evidence of the following six character traits: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

Although the school calls these “characters,” I would also refer to them as “principles” regarding how one might lead a successful life. I would also refer to these as principles because they meet the “principle” definition as being behaviors that are self-evident, have enduring, permanent value, and are generally inarguable. Although we all might agree that these are good principles—because there are no bad principles, just bad values—there still might be “missing” principles, like collaboration or teamwork. I think we would all agree that these, too, are good principles or characters.

One problem with many organizations is that even if the decision makers do define principles or characters, they often create systems or practices that are not properly aligned with those principles, and in some cases are adversely opposed to the very principles they are trying to teach or live by, much like your COM program.

COM and similar programs foster competitiveness among children. It also fosters a lack of creative thought as children try to fit into a mold. It annihilates teamwork by focusing children on short-term performance (e.g., after winning the big prize in February, a student doesn’t need to put forth effort toward the six characters in March because she or he knows it can’t be won two months in a row); and it nourishes rivalries. It leaves children feeling bitter, crushed, despondent, dejected, and inferior. After Samantha had her meltdown and finally fell asleep, I wrote down some of the things she told us: “Don’t they know things like this make kids feel bad about themselves when you try so hard to be good and can’t ever get nominated?” and, “See, there are reasons why I hate school.” These are examples of a child feeling bitter, crushed, and despondent.

Is my daughter the only one who feels this way? Of course not. We’ve talked to other parents about this and they have the same concerns. If you have not already done so, poll your customers—the parents and the children—alone, and let them tell you what they think. On second thought, don’t ask the kids; they are being trained to not buck the system and would be afraid that if they said anything bad about the system, they would not be nominated.

Also, poll other teachers independently. I would bet that the majority of teachers don’t like having to nominate children for this reward.

Now, how does the practice of awarding COM not align with the the six character traits that it is intended to support? Here are a few examples of the more clearly defined characters taken from the school district’s website:

Trustworthiness. “Trustworthiness” is defined as “Be honest…. Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal…. Have the courage to do the right thing… stand by your… friends.”

I ask:
a. How can children really be honest and admit to a mistake they have made or something mean they did to a friend if they know that by admitting it, they would not be COM? They would not. The program encourages dishonesty.
b. How can children not cheat if they know that by cheating, they could become COM?
c. How can children have the courage to do the right thing if they know the school is doing the wrong thing, and if they complain about it, which would be the right thing, they would lose their chance to be COM?
d. How can children be loyal to their friends when their best friends get nominated for COM and they don’t?

Respect. “Respect” is defined as “treat others with respect… be considerate of the feelings of others.”
a. How can a practice like COM be treating children with respect when so many are feeling dejected, despondent, and inferior? That’s not respect.
b. How can a school be considerate of the feelings of children when so many are crying at night because of their lack of self-esteem created by programs like COM?

Responsibility. “Responsibility” is defined as “do what you are supposed to do… always do your best.”
a. How can children do what they are supposed to do if ADD or some other challenge prevents them? They can’t, so they must be resigned to the fact that they won’t win the big prize—COM.
b.  How can we tell children to do their best when their best is never good enough for COM?

 

In summary, the practice of COM is not aligned with, and in fact contradicts, the very characters on which the children are being judged. It’s a self-defeating practice. I ask that it and any similar practices be stopped in support of the character traits that the district, and we parents, are trying to teach our children.

I would assume that the CharacterCounts program is a district program and perhaps even wider in scope. I don’t know if COM is a school practice, or if it goes beyond the school. I ask you as principal to forward this letter on to the decision makers of both the CharacterCounts and COM programs so that the latter can be abolished. In my opinions, CharacterCounts is good; COM is bad and should be eliminated because it defeats CharcterCounts.

Also, if it’s not already required reading, I would highly recommend Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn (Houghten Mifflin, 1999). It’s well-respected and a great read.

Sincerely,
Mike Micklewright

The principal wrote back with:

“I appreciate that you shared your perspective about ‘Croc of the Month’ and will share your concerns with our staff. At the end of last year, the staff and I together determined that this type of recognition program would be beneficial at our school and it has, in fact, recognized many students for a variety of reasons. I know of at least two other schools in our district who do similar programs. I am inferring from your letter that you do not want wish to have your daughter considered for this program, and we will respect your wishes.”

To which I responded:

Your inference was incorrect, and I consider it a slap in my face for “having the courage to do the right thing,” which is one of the definitions of the character trait of “trustworthiness.” I think we would both hope that children and your staff would also have the courage to the do right thing.

Let me be more clear about what I requested in my previous e-mail so that there will be no need for inferences:
1. I am asking that you share my wife’s e-mails, my e-mails, and my letter with the decision makers (i.e., school board, district administrators) of both CharacterCounts and COM.
2. I am asking that you consider abolishing COM and similar programs that do not support the principles of CharacterCounts, do not support the long-term development of good values in our children, and fully support the creation of dejected, demotivated, and inferior-feeling children.
3. I am also suggesting that you and others read Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards.

Some important quotes from Punished by Rewards:

• “If we want children able to act with personal conviction about what is right… we must reduce our adult power and avoid the use of rewards and punishment as much as possible.”

• “What rewards and punishment do produce is temporary compliance. They buy us obedience. If that’s what we mean when we say they ‘work,’ then yes, they work wonders.”

• “No behavioral manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to becoming a caring and responsible person.” [Author's note: Caring and responsibility are, of course, two of the six characters traits on which COM is supposedly based.]

• “We teach thoughtless conformity to school rules, and call the conforming child ‘responsible.’ If this is the sort of responsibility we wish to promote, then a ceaseless application of punishments or rewards would seem the most efficient way—possibly the only way—to go about it. But if by 'responsibility' we mean the capacity to act carefully and thoughtfully, to make ethical judgments and behave in accordance with them, then… extrinsic motivators take us in the wrong direction.”

• “Let us be honest when we reward or punish by asking ourselves for whom we are doing it (them or us?) and for what (the development of good values or mere obedience?).”

 

This last sentence is most important for your staff to discuss. Is COM in place for the children or for teachers and staff?

 

The next day, parents were being asked what they thought of the “Croc of the Month” program. This is a start. Hopefully they will see the light. Rewards programs, at work and at school, are so damaging. They make people work for the reward, not the intent. Poll the intended audience. See what a joke that people participating in these programs actually think they are. Then create a “Stop Doing” list and put “Rewards Programs” at the top.

Discuss

About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.

Comments

Awards are not the sole criteria

Nice article Mike! Somehow giving awards vs abolishing them is a paradox. Coming from India, Asia, i have a different perspective. To receive awards is something, which one aspires to, as it brings fame and respect to the individual. Isn't this what we are looking for consciously or unconsciously in life, at our workplace? Though the credibility can be questioned depending on who judges and what the criteria is.


It is our undying effort to be different from others (either in studies, compensation, clothes, material possessions et all). Unfortunately what causes the heartburn is assessing one's self worth purely based on awards/material possessions. Of course it is nice to receive one, but it is not the sole criteria.


Personally i look at my own successes and failure as a yardstick and gain the confidence from these. I don't remember  receiving any awards at school or college when my peers did and I feel i'm equally doing well when compared to them. All that should matter to you is your self worth. If they give an award it's a bonus.


Suggestion is for you, is to set personal goals and let her keep breaching the limits...When you look back, you would realize that she has left the award winners far behind!


 

Not a new problem

   Adam Smith, most famous for his economic treatise on the "invisible hand" addressed this same issue roughly two and a half centuries ago.  "The rules governing educational institutions are there for the benefit of those doing the governing, not those being governed."

 

   It is not only possible, but rather common, for a group (or profession) to repeat the same mistake or kinds of mistakes for so long that they become tradition.

RDearing

Great! When are you truly successful?

100% agree, we should work as a community to teach values to children and try to provide examples of them so they can actually live through and with them.  We should not teach children to compete on values, if we're really living with moral values one wins more from being compassionate, understanding, honest, truthful, while performing in the best way we can, trying to exceed  our own limits ( and not crushing anyone else) and  being an excellent team member,  than than just striving for material things as a title or a trophy.Great article, Mike! 

Are you saying competition is bad?

Good article Mike.  But Jeff Greer's response made me question something:  Are you saying that competion is bad?  My kids have competed in both individual and team activities, and always thrive on it.  But, what I think is different is that the criteria is well defined, clear, and available for all to prepare and compete against (even for a judgment-based sport like gymnastics).   In the case of your daughter, it seems that the criteria is capricious, widely open to manipulation (e.g. the student who erases shoe skid marks in front of the janitor), more or less a popularity contest.  

So, do you see a place in schools and the workplace for competition and rewards?  And what would make it a healthy experience?

Thanks, Jeff

Is this about school or about work?

Well written article, but I have an issue with it.  I have seen more and more young folks moving into the workplace out of college and suddenly finding themselves having to actually compete with others for a job, for recognition, for pay increases, for bonuses.  It seems as if they have come out of educational institutions where they couldn't play "Tag" or "Kickball" any more because someone always loses and no one wants someone to feel bad. They are coming out of schools that give everyone a trophy because everyone is a "winner".  They come from places with a twisted concept that competition is bad.  And it is ruining them and ruining our country's ability to compete in the world market.


Perhaps this is not what you intended in your letter to the principle of your daughter's school, but that is what I got out of it.  The short reply is probably indicative of someone who probably skipped most of your letter with a yawn, thinking you were preaching from a higher, holier place, spanking them with point after point from a professional's viewpoint and not an educators viewpoint and referencing some obscure work that no one but you and 8 other people in the world has read. I don't think you impressed the principle at all.


I think award programs are good. I have received awards and I have recommended others for awards and it has always worked well for everyone. It lifts spirits, even if your co-worker gets it and you don't. Most folks are happy for others when they win something. And in this day and age, a few extra bucks is always a good thing.


In summary, your reaction to your daughter's situation may be appropriate...none of us really know without being in your shoes or your daughter's or even the principle's...but this particular situation just doesn't translate into the workplace, IMHO.


Jeff Greer FAI Quality Manager

Good Article!!

Jonathon Andell
Andell Associates, LLC
602.689.6041 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              602.689.6041      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
jandell@andellassociates.com

 

Way to speak up for your daughter, Mike! Well said, well thought out, well done!

 

I am writing a book on measuring the right things. My challenge, as you might guess, is not finding an abundance of goofs, but rather finding the occasional pearls of getting it right. However, if I opt to include your article in the former category, may I quote from your letter - with full citations, of course?

 

Regards -

 

Jonathon

Brilliant

How frustrating, yet unsurprising, to get such a response from the principle.

I really, really, REALLY doubt she shared your email with anybody other than the Trash folder in her email program. Sad.