Unintended Consequences - The Secret to Rewarding Behavior

By Lynn Marie Sager

You've likely heard the saying, "What gets rewarded, gets repeated," but did you know, "What gets punished, also gets avoided?" Let me explain...

I once spent Christmas at a military outpost in Bosnia, deployed by the Department of Defense's overseas shows program as an entertainer for the troops. It was a great experience, but it was also a bit like spending Christmas in hell. One evening after a show, one of the soldiers made a comment I'll never forget.

"You have to be careful about doing a good job around here, " he said, "Cause if they think they need you, they'll give you another six months duty."

That soldier knew the consequences of doing a good job, and he considered those consequences a punishment. Whenever we punish people for doing good work, by piling them with more work and no reward, we lose so much of their potential. Why should people work harder for less?

The actions you reward usually determine the actions people repeat. So, if you have been getting what you don't want from people, then on some level, I bet you've been rewarding their behavior. After all, if they weren't receiving some reward, why would they keep repeating it?

Do you remember the saying, "a squeaky wheel gets all the grease"? Well, if you're tired of all the "squeaky wheels" in your life, then stop only rewarding the squeaks. Set aside the majority of your grease for the "wheels" that actually work. Devise a system for rewarding the people who actually give you what you want, and those "squeaky wheels" might just change their tune.
Sadly, some people don't live up to their potential because they know that they'll only be expected to do more.

During a lecture on rewards and punishments, I had a student once raise his hand to say, "That's so true. Whenever I help out at home, I just get asked to do more. The more I help, the more I get asked to do. It's gotten so I don't volunteer for anything. The other day, my aunt's gardener got sick and couldn't make his weekly visit, so I decided to help out with the lawn. I spent all weekend cleaning and mowing. Do you know how my aunt rewarded me? She fired the gardener, and made the yard my responsibility."

Don't punish people who are doing well by expecting even more. Whenever we ask for help, get help, and instantly expect more help, we punish the very actions that we want repeated...

From A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, by Lynn Marie Sager copyright 2005

You can find more about this topic on Navigating Life's website. Simply go to http://www.navigatinglife.org, and visit the Galley for links to our full articles.

Lynn Marie Sager has toured over two-dozen countries and worked on three continents. Author of A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, Lynn currently lives in California; where she fills her time with private coaching, public speaking, and teaching for the LACCD and Pierce College. She runs the Navigating Life website, where she offers free assistance to readers who wish to incorporate the rules of worthwhile living into their lives. To read more about how you can use these rules to improve your life, visit Lynn's website at http://www.navigatinglife.org

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