Rewards Must Be Earned – Zig Zag Principle #64

March 1st, 2012 by Rich Christiansen

Don’t Give Out Rewards Until They are Actually Earned

Being a fundamentally nice guy, I have made the mistake multiple times of giving a reward when the performance didn’t warrant it.  Every time that I have done this, I have ended up regretting it.  Even though you may feel for a minute that you’ve done the right thing, you’ve likely created a pattern and behavior system that will bite you in the end.  In some cases, being “nice” has been the death knell of my businesses. 

My family and I have traveled to Nepal several times, and I am always overwhelmed by the rampant poverty.  Like anyone who has traveled there, I have been approached countless times by small children who must beg in the streets for what little they have, and I always ponder what I—as one person with limited means—can do to help. 

The last time we were there, several young beggars followed my sons, our two Sherpas, and me everywhere we went.  They were filthy, and their ragged clothes were soaked with urine.  They approached us repeatedly, gesturing to their mouth and then their stomach to show us they were hungry. 

I believe that giving a person a handout does little to change his or her circumstances, but it broke my heart to see these small boys, who were about the ages of my younger boys.  Then I hit upon an idea.

We were in the middle of a central square where countless people gather each day to worship and shop.  While there are numerous trash cans in the square, no one seems to use them, and the area is covered with what looks like years of debris.  I decided I could solve two problems at once, so I offered one of the beggars 100 rupees (about $1.40) for every bag of trash he picked up and put in a trash can.  Given that the daily income for an adult in Nepal is about $2, that seemed like a powerful incentive.

What I was asking would have taken a couple of minutes, but this little boy looked at me like I was nuts and ran off.  Another little boy approached me, and I made the same offer.  He indicated he would do it, but wanted payment up front.  Now, I may be a soft touch, but I’m not stupid, so I told him he would get paid upon completion of the work.  He, too, ran off.

The third boy who approached me was the dirtiest and scrawniest of the bunch.  I really thought my plan had merit, so I upped the offer to 500 rupees.  His initial reaction was to give me a look that said, “No one picks up trash.  Not even beggars.  What kind of crazy American are you?”  But this time, I grabbed a bag and started picking up trash myself.  He soon joined in, and was stuffing trash into his bag as quickly as he could.  There was so much trash that our efforts were like trying to drain a pond using a teaspoon, but we were at least doing something to make a dent.  And soon others were joining in, including a gentleman who runs a humanitarian organization who saw my impetuous project as having some potential.

When we finished working and I paid the boy, he couldn’t have been more proud.  And several shopkeepers around the square began making similar offers to other boys who clearly were in need.

I realize that we made a very small dent in the problems of world hunger and cleaning up the environment that day.  But I also know that those who watched, including my sons, learned that rewards need be based on our efforts, not our wishes—and that the right reward system can provide the motivation to get to work and make a difference.

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