Behavior That Gets Rewarded Gets Repeated

In Michael LeBoeuf’s 1985 book, The Greatest Management Principle in the World, he shares this fable:

“A weekend fisherman looked over the side of his boat and saw a snake with a frog in its mouth. Feeling sorry for the frog, he reached down, gently removed it from the snake's mouth and let it go free. But now he felt sorry for the hungry snake. Having no food, he took out a flask of bourbon and poured a few drops into the snake's mouth. The snake swam away happy, the frog was happy, and the fisherman was happy for having performed such good deeds. He thought all was well until a few minutes passed and he heard something knock against the side of his boat. The fisherman looked down and, with stunned disbelief, saw the snake was back - this time with two frogs!”

This story conveys two messages:

  • We get what we reward
  • We often reward the wrong behavior

Do you…

… stay at a certain hotel to get free nights?

… fly a certain airline to get free travel?

… use one credit card over another to get cash back?

You probably do one or all of those things. It is obvious that rewards work, but what behaviors are most companies rewarding? In typical organizations, leaders reward busy-work, long hours and risk avoidance. Short-term wins are emphasized over long-term, steady growth, and responsible action. The decision to implement quick fixes (doing things the quick, easy, cheap way) often override solid solutions, which focus on long-term investing, planning and commitment. Rewarding the wrong things pushes good employees, looking for fulfillment in their careers, right out of the door.

In 1976 a young engineer got bored with his job designing computer chips for scientific calculators at HP. On five different occasions he asked, he all but begged if he could work on designing a personal computer but the company said no each time. So Steve Wozniak went home, built one and called it Apple. Apple fanboy or not, just think how our lives are different today because of his innovation. Think about what HP squandered by avoiding risk while Apple went on to become the highest valued company in US history. 

If we reward cost avoidance and risk aversion, we will get more of it. If we reward problem solving, risk taking and innovation, loyalty and teamwork, we will get more of those.

Reward the things that are important over the long term. Remember, cheap, short-sighted wins are not really wins. Whatever you do, do it right!