Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Praise punishment and regression to the "mean"




Using punishment as an incentive is wrong-headed.

First, let me put into context a few life events that have shaped my thinking on leadership and training. I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps when I was 17 years old. Maybe I'll go into details on why in a later post, but a few months after my 18th birthday I was on a bus to Parris Island, South Carolina. They organize transportation so that the bus arrives on the island at 3 a.m. then all hell breaks loose for the next 12 weeks; this is known as Marine Corps Boot Camp. A few years later, I was selected for a scholarship and ended up going to a private military school, Norwich University. That in itself is another story for a different time (my friends reading this that have heard the story are laughing right now). The first year attendees of Norwich go through an extended bootcamp known as Rookdom. A few years later I found myself in Quantico Virginia attending USMC Officer Candidate School, which followed an 8 month training program known as "Bulldog"; yea that was fun. A year after that, I spent six months at USMC The Basic School, which effectively is another boot camp, but with more emphasis on peer leadership. Few would argue that I've had more than my fair share of training that has traditionally made extensive use of punishment as an incentive. Based on my assertion in the first sentence of this post you might think that I had a tough time in these schools. But the truth is that I didn't; actually I excelled and enjoyed all the hard training. My first year in the Marine Corps I did so well that I earned two meritorious promotions, those successes lead into my selection for the officer candidate programs that eventually gave me the opportunities to be commissioned as a Marine Corps Officer and spend five amazing years leading Marines. You'd think having such a great experiences with punishment as incentive that I'd be all for it and giving everyone I work with a healthy dose of Drill Instructor type "constructive criticism". Those that work with me will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.    

Steven Pressfield's excellent book "The War of Art" has a few sentences about the Marine Corps that I enjoyed.
    "There's a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful. The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crapper equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dog faces, swab jockeys, or fly boys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don't know how to be miserable."

This puts all of the pain and abuse of "corrective" training in the Marine Corps into context in my mind. Sure, part of it is an incentive to drive yourself into the ground in the pursuit of excellence. But even those that did well still caught the abuse. The traditions of negative training in military contexts is to breed mental and physical toughness through adversity. Having experienced it all first-hand I can assure you it is not conducive to other environments.

I was walking through a restaurant several weeks ago and in a side corridor noticed a manager berating one of the waitresses over some minor offense. I don't even know what it was, but they stopped after they saw me walk up. Of course I didn't say anything, it was only a minor discussion and none of my business. But I wish I could have had a conversation with the manager and explained to them that punishment only breeds contempt, not better performance. The evidence for this is so overwhelming that you'd think anyone in a leadership position would see it as obvious. But there's an illusion at play in these scenarios that makes unobservant leaders think that punishment works.

Let's say I'm a new leader trying to figure out how to do performance management and the two tools I'm learning how to use are negative and positive reinforcement and I employ them both. The first thing I try (because I'm a good person and I want to praise people) is praise someone for doing well. They met a deadline, mopped a floor, sold something, or wrote exceptional code. Great! Happiness and celebration all around. But I notice that the person I praised usually doesn't do as well the next time. The next deadline might be missed, they missed a spot mopping, missed a sale, or the code has a bug.  What gives? Ok, next I'll try negative reinforcement. So somebody under performs and I let them have it. I give them bad performance appraisals, mention their failure, give them demerits, counsellings, or whatever. Over time, I start to notice that more often than not, when I've punished their poor performance they seem to get better! I'm not making this up! In my experience this is exactly how things work. So why wouldn't I advocate for using punishment to increase performance? Because all of this is just an illusion.


Think of performance as random and happening across a range of potential outcomes. Like a stock chart it goes up and down, so goes an individuals performance at a task. The overall trend might be up, or it might be down, and this is the real thing to watch. But look at the chart and see where we would notionally apply positive or negative reinforcement. If we apply positive reinforcement at the peaks, statistically speaking the next thing that happens is going to be less stellar than what we praised. If we apply negative reinforcement at the troughs, statistically the next task is going to be better. This happens in both scenarios regardless of whether our intervention had any impact at all leading to the illusion that negative reinforcement increases performance. It's a bias that needs to be overcome. In statistics and sociology this concept is called regression to the mean and it's a well studied phenomenon which can be summarized as such: "if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement".

So the next time you find yourself intuitively thinking that "punishment works"; take a step back and remind yourself of this illusion. It really does pay to be good to everyone, even though at a superficial level it doesn't seem to work as well.