The problem with carrot/stick motivation

On the podcast, Jocko was talking about how negative reinforcement – teaching through punishment of bad behavior – is the worst form of leadership. People will work just hard enough to avoid punishment and that’s it.

I’d add that eventually you’re working harder at specifying and enforcing punishment than you are at actually leading or doing your own job – which is more than being a baby sitter I’m sure.

I’d also add that the same problem is true of positive reinforcement, sadly. If you lead people by having contests and constant visible rewards people work only hard enough to get them. You might get good results out of them during the contest or in the wake of some high praise but then they drop off and the person now feels that the normal level of their job is no longer rewarding enough so they start to get resentful or slack. You’ve given them the drug of praise and can’t ween them off. Now you’re in the same position as before that instead of doing your own job you’re a full time cheerleader for people who need a pat on the head just to meet the standards.

Yet because teachers and parents do this to little kids it gets internalized and people end up doing it themselves.

So much misdirected energy goes into thinking about how and when to reward oneself That people on diets actually buy more junk food than before. It’s because they’ve been ‘good’ all day and feel like they’ve earned a treat by the evening. It even works in the course of a single grocery trip. The healthy food is on the right (which is where people in North America instinctively go first, no one knows why) so people think healthy thoughts then feel like they can go ahead and junk it up when they leave. They’ve earned it.

But the constant self reward doesn’t make you happy does it? You’re back at baseline almost immediately, standing in your living room wishing you felt something more than a need to turn on the TV.

We tend to believe that the world is cruel and it’s important to be nice to ourselves. Really it’s childhood training again, if you’re parents promised you bike for getting good grades you got them bike no matter what, ‘for trying’, because they didn’t want you to be disappointed. Because they’re weak and think you’re weak too.

The thing is we live in the polite society of a customer service economy and your day-to-day world is actually extremely nice to you. You focus on the one jerk you encounter in a day but the fact is you crossed paths with a thousand people and you all wordlessly step out of each other’s path, held doors, moved your legs, smiled, nodded, co-existed delightfully, hurray Canada. You’re existential nagging that society is indifferent to you as an individual is not the same as the world being harsh, society wants you happy, healthy, and safe so you’ll spend lots of money, society is desperate to cater to your mere whims.

You have the absolutely unique position of knowing how hard you can be on yourself because no one else can be or will be. Your friends won’t push you to be better out of nice, your boss won’t push you to be better because you might quit and go get one of a million identical jobs. But you can’t take offense if you call yourself names,  and getting into an ego battle with yourself can’t make you resentful and passive aggressive, you can never mistake your own firmness for a lack of love.

You can be your own Drill Sargent. You wanna be tougher? Be Tougher.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Pragmatism, Uncategorized
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