The Carrot is Mightier than the Stick

When great performance is the goal, it’s easy to turn to criticism in an attempt to make it happen. After all, if you can get an employee to correct the things they are doing wrong, the end result promises to be better. Right? Well…yes…and no. 

Conventional wisdom holds that pointing out an employee’s shortcomings will cause that employee to bring their A game. While it’s true that criticism can lead to temporary improvement, experts now say that employee’s performance likely would have improved even if you hadn’t said a word. The philosophy behind their claim is called “regression to the mean.” It centers on the belief that human performance is never completely consistent. That applies to everyone from world-class musicians and athletes to college professors and line workers.

An individual’s performance varies from day to day. That’s why a baseball player may hit three home runs in one game and strike out five times in the next. Or why a classical musician may fumble a few notes in one performance, only to play the same piece flawlessly the very next night.

For this reason, we do not typically judge a person’s ability based solely on one performance. Instead, we consider their average performance over time. Statisticians refer to that as an individual’s “mean performance.” If one were to track a person’s performance day-by-day or task-by-task, they would likely discover that an extraordinary performance – one that is far greater than that person’s average – is almost surely followed by one which is decidedly lackluster.

In the workplace, therefore, someone may have an off-day – or an off-week or off-month, for that matter. As their boss, you will probably feel compelled to criticize them for their poor performance. Afterwards, their performance will most likely return to their pre-slump level, as did our baseball player and musician in the hypothetical example above. The “regression to the mean” philosophy holds that they would have returned to that same level – their norm – with or without your criticism, simply because it is their norm.

One of the key areas of any performance review is “opportunities for improvement.” As a result, much of the formal discussion of the review revolves around the employee’s shortcomings. It’s basic human nature to pay more attention to what’s wrong than what is right. The problem with that approach is that it does little to improve the employee’s long-term performance because they will invariably return to their normal, the mean.

Research shows that positive reinforcement produces better long-term results than focusing primarily on faults. After all, few employees are going to be motivated to raise their norm if they feel like all you’ve done is tear them down. Thus, our goal should be to shift our focus from increasing performance on specific tasks to increasing someone’s overall performance. The best way to accomplish this goal is to focus on that which a person does well, rather than dwelling on the times they’ve faltered. Identify and reward employees’ strengths and then help them map out a plan for building on them. Then and only then will you truly see employee performance improve, rather than shoot up temporarily only to regress to the mean.

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