Negatives have positive aspects. Negative reinforcements and punishments get a bad rap. There can be many positives to negatives. Although we are continually reminded to be alert for perverse incentives, little is usually said about the proper use of disincentives. It would seem that books could be filled with tips on how to use negatives in a positive manner and how to avoid abuses when using “punishments.” Since no one is writing those books, maybe this post and others will inspire a broader discussion about the subject.
Conventional wisdom says one should always be positive and encouraging rather than negative and discouraging. But that seems oversimplified. All positives don’t equally attract; all negatives don’t equally repel. An observation as obvious as that appears to have little effect in the face of generally universal disapproval of “negatives.” No one wants to hear it. Perhaps that is the best reason to raise a topic for serious consideration, simply because it tends be ignored, like the elephant in the room.
Not all human behaviors respond to positives alone, without some underlying “negative.” Preventive steps that will impede a potential selfish act may be needed to correct an unbalanced set of consequences: i.e., a “moral hazard” situation in which there is great upside gain for successful risky behavior but absolutely no downside penalty for failure. Contingent precautions that will deter, dissuade, deter or extinguish an undesired behavior are frequently required to counterbalance an otherwise obvious positive. Speeding tickets are a perfect example. The risk of being ticketed for excessive speed appears to inspire more compliance with speed limits than any number of safety messages.
History tells us that a place will always still remain for negatives. One classic instance involves the phrase pour encourager les autres. It refers to an occasion when such severe punishment was inflicted for perceived timidity that British Royal Navy captains were strongly influenced for centuries thereafter to demonstrate consistent attitudes of aggressive determination. People do pay much closer attention to the adequacy of their performance when serously bad consequences can result from errors. Decimation is another prime example of the reinforcement power of negative consequences; but that punishment can be discussed more at another time, if this topic proves to have “legs.”
The desire to avoid exclusions from elite groups also drives much behavior. When membership in a special team is considered a great honor, people will exert themselves, working harder to avoid being dropped from the team. Denial of access to a “good” has to be considered a negative. If being included in a bonus pool is a positive motivational incentive, shouldn’t being restricted from participation be considered a negative punishment? Maybe not, because that involves an issue of entitlement eligibility; most of us would probably agree that being left out of the executive team bonus opportunity because you are a lowly clerk happens all the time. Nevertheless, if that “snub” inspires you to strive for executive status, then the “negative” stimulus has been transformed into a positive motivational response. It happens.
The prospect of losing something good may be considred a “negative” but it still remains highly motivational. Research consistently confirms that people work harder to retain something valuable than to attain it in the first place; i.e.,“..pay cuts for CEOs are undeniably associated with performance turnarounds.”
Manipulators of human behavior have known for a long time that the average person is more strongly influenced by the possibility of downside loss than by the prospect of upside gain. Strange, then, that we in the Total Rewards profession seem to be slow to act on the knowledge that takeaways are more effective than giveaways. Perhaps we are addicted to smiley faces.
Granted, life seems better when we can always make everyone happy, but sometimes more than one approach is needed to fix problems. Just because a particular tool is unpopular and avoided to the point of being shunned doesn’t mean that it can’t be effective.
What do you think?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. After over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Creative Commons image "Photograms: Negative and Positive" by Ivette Diaz