West Virginia University Mountaineer play-by-play announcer @TonyCaridi tweeted Friday morning, “If you won the Mega Millions lottery … what 3 hoop officials would you pay to never work another game?” I thought Tony had hit on a fabulous idea and immediately visualized a Big East referee who I’d buy out first. I won’t name him, but from missed calls to no-calls, his officiating is inconsistent and technically flawed. Buying him out would be a small parting gesture to the Big East. Clearly a win-win situation. So what if the official would be benefiting from his poor performance? The world would be a better place if fans could limit their exasperation and verbal tirades to bad passes, poor shot selection and air balls. I felt that I was now destined to win the Mega Millions jackpot so I could save NCAA athletics and bring joy to the hearts of Mountaineer fans everywhere.
The dream didn’t last long. I heard a voice next season asking me, “What were you thinking?” I wasn’t. I was caught up in what I thought was right at the moment. Thinking about it was almost as positively reinforcing as the act would have been itself. But like many everyday people are tempted to do, I would have been giving up what I wanted in the future (sound officiating) for what I wanted now (this official never to work another game).
I wasn’t thinking about the other officials. This official works games in a crew. He’s also a member of the larger Big East officiating crew, which is part of the NCAA officials group. What would I be rewarding with the buy-out? Poor officiating. If I could do that without anyone ever knowing, I could tell myself it was OK because of the benefit to the greater good. That kind of thinking could get me into trouble and would be the groundwork for more bad and potentially unethical decisions. One way or another, whether I tried to hide it or make up a story to cover up my intentions, everyone would know that I was rewarding poor officiating. I can just image the officiating that would follow when the officials knew that some guy with too much money was retiring officials who made bad calls against his team. But for five minutes, it seemed like a really great idea.
This sort of thing happens all of the time in organizations. Managers make quick decisions with good intentions or to rid themselves of small annoyances without looking ahead at how their decision will affect the culture of the organization. Employees quickly learn what they need to do to get noticed, rewarded and promoted. They follow the leader and the contingencies of reinforcement. Regardless of good intentions, misdirected rewards and positive reinforcement have a ripple effect in an organizational culture.
Follow these two tips to avoid misdirecting your rewards:
- Clearly identify what you’ll be rewarding – Stop and think this through. What might seem obvious to you might not be to the performer or others. When giving a reward, clearly specify to the performer what was done to earn the reward. If you’re concerned that you might be misinterpreted, your description could also include what the reward was not for.
- Think through the potential impact on others – People observe cause-and-effect relationships in their work environment (e.g., he did this and that happened). Take a few minutes to think through how your actions might prompt, reinforce or punish the behaviors of others. Your goal should be to establish a culture in which everyone knows that good things happen to those who do the right things and produce the right results.
So when you win the Mega Millions jackpot, be a traditionalist. Go to Disney. Buy a pony. Just stay away from basketball (and football). My heart can’t take any more bad calls.
This is a guest post by Tom Spencer, chief operating officer at Aubrey Daniels International. Spencer is a human performance consultant who helps organizations design, develop and implement instructional, performance feedback and consequence systems that drive behavior linked to critical business results.