What can we learn from “Pay for grades”

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In addition to my fascination with management of people I am almost as equally fascinated by education. I find many similarities between the subjects (as I mentioned in the past – see here and here) as both subjects remain a mystery although they have been practiced in a professional rigorous way for more than a century. That is why I particularly enjoyed reading the article from Time Magazine titled: Pay for Grades: Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?.

While the article raises a controversial issue about paying kids to make them learn which I must admit I am not too happy about, I admire the fact that the researchers actually went out and tried this approach in real life setting. As the article suggests, you learn some amazing things when you do that, some of them unexpected. The fact that we have moral reservation about issues should not stop us from exploring them, when we are already facing a system that is failing (for a different perspective on the last issue see Dan Ariely’s take).

However, in this blog, I want to point out two interesting quotes from the article that I think have just as much relevance to the management world as to the education world. Here is the first one:

We tend to assume that kids (and adults) know how to achieve success. If they don’t get there, it’s for lack of effort — or talent. Sometimes that’s true. But a lot of the time, people are just flying blind. John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noticed the disconnect in his own education experiments. He explains the problem to me this way: “I could ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation,” he says. “A what?” I ask. “A third-order linear partial differential equation,” he says. “I could offer you a million dollars to solve it. And you can’t do it.” (He’s right. I can’t.) For some kids, doing better on a geometry test is like solving a third-order linear partial differential equation, no matter the incentive.

We have a tendency to focus on results and outcomes. And that is usually a good thing. Just by measuring outcomes, we can sometimes create a sense of positive competition that drives these results. Sometimes it is simple – because people know what to do, they just need a little nudge of fun to drive them to excel. However, when things go wrong and we don’t see the desired outcomes we tend to be fixed on the outcomes. And then we assume things.

“These workers are not motivated. They are not working hard. They are slackers. After all I have done for them and all I offer them; they still don’t give me the results I want.”

All that is well and good, but it is not very helpful. Assumptions don’t take us anywhere and in case of relationships, they are wrong most of the time. As the article points out you can offer these kids a lot of money, but you probably won’t see results. This is what Paul Herbert calls Energized Incompetence:

Take five people who never have played basketball, put them on the court and tell them if they win the game they receive $1 million dollars each. I’m sure you’ll get a lot of activity. Heck, it would be real fun to just watch the mayhem. But the chances of success are slim and none … Motivation isn’t just creating energy – it’s creating directed energy.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the writers claim that one of the most effective ways to create change is to explain what are the critical steps needed in order to create that change. It is not enough to say what the change is but we need to chip out the behavioral steps that will lead to the new results. Because sometimes people can’t find the way. And this connects directly to the second quote from the article:

Kids may respond better to rewards for specific actions because there is less risk of failure. They can control their attendance; they cannot necessarily control their test scores. The key, then, may be to teach kids to control more overall — to encourage them to act as if they can indeed control everything, and reward that effort above and beyond the actual outcome.

The funny thing is, that when you give people access to steps that they were missing, they find new exciting ways to accomplish the goal in a better way than you could have imagined. It is a delicate balance between allowing autonomy and offering support.

What are you asking you employees to do? Are these things under their control? Are your rewards directed to results or to the right behaviors?



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