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Posted by on Jul 15, 2013 in Featured, Food For Thought, Managing People | 2 comments

Are You Rewarding Underperformance?

Are You Rewarding Underperformance?

“This is the second month her performance has been poor. She seems to be bored and unmotivated, so I’m thinking to put her on a special project to get her excited about work again. What do you think?”

That is what my assistant manager told me while we were discussing the team’s progress. He was referring to a team member who was a good performer, but had a sudden and sharp drop in performance.

“No. That’s actually the opposite of what we should do.” I replied without hesitation.

As a perplexed look started to take shape on his face, I explained that “we would be rewarding underperformance by putting her on a special project”. The message we would be sending is ‘slack off and  get rewarded with working on cool projects.

His predictable reaction was “we can give her a strong word of warning and clarify that this is not a reward.”

“Actions speak louder than words” was my prepackaged, generic, buzz-wordy, cliche, yet appropriate response. It won’t matter what we say because she would be getting rewarded and everyone else on the team will see and make their conclusions based on that.

The intention is a good one, but its a mistake that is easy for managers to fall into. Fortunately for me, I learned this lesson years earlier from a friend who shared with me a similar story from his work. 

I preempted the assistant manager’s next question “what should we do then”. I told him we need to address the project and the individual separately. For the person, we have to sit with her and address the issue that is causing the drop in performance. If it’s something we can help with, then we will work with her to improve. If it’s a lack of effort, then we need to make it clear that she has to get her act together and improve her performance… or else.

As for the project, I told him we have to make sure we pick someone suitable for the project to start with, otherwise we would be setting him/her up for failure. More importantly, we should pick someone who has been performing well for the project. That way, we would be rewarding good performance rather than the opposite. Keeping a on the “line” work to maintain high productivity punishes strong performers, which is another side to the same mistake.

The problem with this mistake is that it yields results that are the opposite of what is intended. It’s not just managers who can make this mistake. Parents can be victims also. My cousin was a reckless driver as a teenager. One day he lost control of the car and drove into a street garbage bin. His mother covered things up for him so he doesn’t get into trouble. Obviously she was protecting her son, but the problem is that she was rewarding bad behaviour. When I told her that, my cousin got very angry at me. Of course she rationalized her behavior. A few years later, he had a more serious accident. Luckily he survived it with no harm, but that experience made him a much safer driver… maybe a little too safe.

Do you have experience with rewarding the wrong behavior? Share your experience with us and readers in the comments below. Also, share this article with someone who can benefit from this article.

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