Heather and I recently returned from an extended vacation. We had an excellent dining room server every evening and great food. In our third last dinner, he told us about a customer satisfaction survey we’d be receiving when our vacation was over. He emphasized how important the ratings for his service were to his career ambitions. He said, “Please rate me a 10/10. Anything less than that is a zero.” He gave this same pitch to us the next two evenings.

I went to the grocery store the day after we returned home. The shelf space for baby spinach was empty. I asked a produce clerk if there was any in the back. He returned with a fresh case and stocked the shelf. When I thanked him, he handed me a slip with text about the store’s commitment to customer service, the need for customer survey input, and their website address. The produce clerk wrote his name in the space to name an employee for exceptional service and asked me to rate and name him.

When I take my car for service, I get a follow-up phone call from the dealership asking if I was pleased with the service. When I answer positively, the caller says I’ll be getting a customer survey from their head office. “We really need a 10/10 to maintain our high customer satisfaction ratings.”

Pushing versus Pulling: Manipulating Isn’t Motivating

These experiences reminded me of a story about Jake, the busker. Jake walked into a bar and saw a crowd gathered around a table. On the table was an overturned pot with a duck doing a lively dance on top. Jake immediately saw the huge potential of this act. He negotiated with the bar owner and agreed to buy the duck and pot for a hefty fee.

Three days later, Jake stormed furiously back into the bar with the duck and pot. “I demand my money back! I gathered a large crowd to watch my street performance, built up their anticipation, placed the pot in front of them, and put the duck on it. It just sat there and wouldn’t dance a single step!”

The bar owner asked, “Did you light the candle under the pot?”

Many managers try to “motivate” or push people by lighting a fire under them. This is at the heart of the Motivation Myth. We really can’t motivate anyone. Motivation is an inside job. Effective leaders stoke the fire within by pulling and inspiring people through engagement and “empartnerment.”

Stop Bribing and Start Leading

When training dogs, treats, praise, and pats on the head are very effective. It’s a classic master/pet manipulation.

Many recognition programs are built on this same paternalistic premise. “Be a good little employee, and we’ll give you lots of ‘atta boys/girls’ and treats.” This is not how we build highly engaged teams who feel emotional connections and partnership with each other, customers, and their leaders.

There’s a long line of studies on this leadership/culture failure. A good example is a Harvard Business Review’s Working Knowledge article on How to Demotivate Your Best Employees. Associate professor Ian Larkin reports on an attendance program that decreased overall productivity by 1.4 percent. A big part of this decrease was from “stellar employees who previously had excellent attendance and were highly productive ended up suffering a 6 to 8 percent productivity decrease.”

How to effectively use rewards and recognition is an issue cutting to core leadership values and assumptions. The big differences with reward and recognition approaches have to do with how they’re used. Making them manipulative diverts attention from the meaningful issues of values and purpose and shifts to self-interest and selfishness.

Using or Abusing Rewards and Recognition

 

Management Push

Leadership Pull

“Motivate” with rewards/recognition to manipulate, control, and direct behavior Follow with rewards/recognition to support great customer service
Do it to frontline servers to push motivational buttons Do it with frontline servers to develop meaningful systems and practices
Paternalistic pats on the head Participative partnerships
Managers decide who gets rewarded and recognized for meeting their goals/performance standards Broad input/measurements help leaders and servers partner in who and how to reward and recognize
Assumes poor customer service is caused by lazy, unmotivated, and uncaring servers Assumes customer service breakdowns are caused by systems, structures, and processes that don’t support and enable servers

 

A great perspective on this issue comes from Alfie Kohn’s well-researched book, Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes:

“…good management, like good teaching, is a matter of solving problems and helping people do their best. This takes time and effort and thought and patience and talent. Dangling a bonus in front of employees does not. In many workplaces, incentive plans are used as a substitute for management: pay is made contingent on performance and everything else is left to take care of itself…if it does makes sense to measure the effectiveness of rewards on the basis of whether they produce lasting change, the research suggests that they fail miserably.”

Alfie’s great at spotlighting the problem, but not so good at suggesting alternative approaches. I’ve tried to provide practical how-to pointers in Energize or Enervate: Recognition Practices That Turn People Off or On.

Building a culture that inspires outstanding customer service times is a “soft” skill that’s very hard to do. That’s why it’s so rare — and so effective when done well.

Now, about this article…I really need you to rate it 10/10!