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What Makes Employees Work Harder: Punishment or Pampering? (theatlantic.com)
64 points by godarderik 1545 days ago | hide | past | web | 52 comments | favorite


Trust. Empowerment. For the really good folks: Just get out of their way (and have good channels of communication so that it's clear they're not utterly going off the rails).

Having people continually worry if they're going to be punished will make your org a hopeless mess. Supplying people with free snackies and flexible hours without giving them freedom won't make them work harder, it'll just give them a sense of entitlement.

I was going to say this. People aren't going to work hard for someone else (they'll work enough to get by but that's it). If you empower them they'll be working for themselves, and they'll actually want to do a good job. It reminds me of a blog post by a guy managing a few open source projects. The quality of the pull requests he got were poor, and required a lot of fixing up. He decided to add anyone who gave a pull request as an admin, and suddenly the quality of their code went way up. They weren't working for someone else anymore. They were working for themselves.

I don't think I would have been brave enough to give admin permissions to authors of disappointing pull requests. Well done.

If you recall who he is, let us know.

This was Felixge - former core Node.js developer - with his pull request hack [0].

[0] http://felixge.de/2013/03/11/the-pull-request-hack.html

Thanks for finding that!

Not a good general rule. What if your employees are simply mediocre performers? Do you really want to trust & empower them? Get out of their way? I don't think so. Not every company can afford to hire the very, very best.

Employee incentives and motivation is not a one-size-fits-all optimization problem. It depends on the company, on the team, on what they're working on, etc.

I think 'caring' works pretty well for most people. What I mean is this: care about what they're doing. Ask after it. Ask if there are problems, or they need help, or about what problems they faced. This lets them know that people do care about the results and are watching, without being authoritarian or putting them on some kind of pedastal. I think you can be a mediocre worker (I've met some really awesome coders myself, guys like Andrew Tridgell, and compared to them, I'm as mediocre as it gets), and still put in your best effort, be diligent at what you do, and so on.

"Do you really want to trust & empower them? Get out of their way? I don't think so."

Trust begets trust. This will beget none. Is it any wonder your employees are being mediocre when you don't trust and empower them to be anything else?

Not every company can afford to hire the very best, but you don't need to. Good management will strive to improve the systems (including the human systems, the learning systems, and the motivational systems) which empower your employees to work better, and for your quality to improve. Traditional (read: negative or carrot-and-stick type) motivational tactics almost all have complex and difficult-to-measure complications which do more harm than good.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming#Key_principle... - and follow them. Designed for factories, but applicable to all management of all work. It's counter to the standard American idea of the employee-employer relationship, so extremely difficult to adapt to, but it is based on behavioral science, psychology, and statistical methods and should be regarded as basic truth. Start there and base your ideas about management on facts.

I'm not sure it matters, actually. Most of the highest value work is going to get done by the best folks, so as long as the "trust and empower" regime doesn't cause a complete erosion in the productivity of the mediocre programmers then it might end up being a net positive.

Even so, you are correct that there's no one size fits all management strategy for every individual and every situation. Holding such a view is a sure fire route to failure, typically. If managing were as easy as consulting a lookup table for the correct policy to apply then we wouldn't need human beings with lots of experience to do it would we?

What if your employees are simply mediocre performers?

What if there was something that could motivate them to get better?

I would suggest that the best performers are internally motivated and not externally motivated.

So ultimately if you could motivate them to be better, then by definition they would be mediocre performers.

Based on my personal experience, I would not be surprised if you were to show me a study that found a strong correlation between being internally motivated and being considered a star performer.

All people operate within a system, whether visible or not. Improve your systems, improve your quality; regardless of your employees.

Besides, by definition, most of your employees will be average. Otherwise the average would shift. Focus on bringing the whole bell curve up by improving your systems and your management, rather than on terms you use for individuals. You're better off optimizing your company and your management to handle this diversity, since it's a natural result of a sample.

You are assuming people who are 'high achievers' achieve highly in all circumstances: this is false.

For example, the Ivy League colleges suffer rampant grade inflation due to these high-achieving students not being able to cope with getting less-than-perfect grades. This poor coping is a form of 'low achievement' that drives other 'low achievement' behaviors: reduced course load, dropping out, switching to less rigorous majors, etc.

This debate has been around for half a century. It's far, far more nuanced than this article suggests. Here's the original formulation of it:


But it's not that Theory Y is necessarily "better". It depends on tons of different variables. And there have been plenty more theories after X and Y...

On the qualities of The Atlantic's digital strategy and editorial policies:


tl;dr: banned from Reddit

>And there have been plenty more theories after X and Y...

Specifically Theory Z - which can probably be summed up as "some combination of both X and Y"


Which is an instance of the Hegelian Dialectic, which is itself bullshit.

Paying attention to people who are used to being ignored makes them do more. Negative attention or positive attention, both work.

If, as management, you are ignoring your employees, you aren't doing your job well.

Negative attention can produce short term positive results, because the employee acquires focus. Long term, employees with self-respect will leave. If you can replace them with a robot, you should do that ASAP.

Positive attention can produce both short and long term positive results, but positive attention which is not earned will be converted into negative attention when the employee figures out you are not sincere. Don't be a hypocrite.

Punishment only takes you so far. Like this dialogue from "Office Space".

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care.

Bob Porter: Don't... don't care?

Peter Gibbons: It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation? And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.

Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?

Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.

Bob Slydell: Eight?

Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

I skimmed the research paper and I don't think it says what the Atlantic article claims. It looks like the paper's authors think making employee-theft less cost-effective caused employees to make up the difference in their income by working harder on tasks that also generated income for the company. That doesn't mean they worked harder, just that they spent the same effort in different areas.

Assuming their model is even correct (I didn't see an attempt to test the model itself in this paper) that would mean jobs which are not associated with easy theft would not benefit from getting the big brother treatment.

But that's just my evaluation based on skimming it.

It really depends on the the employee.

Some thrive on open-ended projects, some thrive with bite-sized chunks of work with quick feedback.

For me, as an employer, I tend to go look at their car. If it's a mess inside, then I tend to lump them in the "needs quick feedback" category.

This tip just made my day, thank you.

Now I'm not even sure I want to clean up my car inside.

That's brilliant.

If they have no other employment options, the answer to this question is 'yes.' If they have marketable skills, punishment will definitely make them work harder...at finding a better class of employer.

I think it was Bill Walsh (yes, the 49ers football coach) who wrote about one of his keys to managing the players. He found that some people are negatively motivated and needed to be pressured to improve, some people were positively motivated and needed praise and some people could be left alone. The trick was figuring out which class each player fell into.

Bill Walsh might have said it also, but this football coach was probably first:

"Bull Cyclone once said to Tommy Atkins, a player who became a career Marine, 'Tommy, there are two kinds of young men—those you have to kick in the pants to get their potential and those you have to pat on the back. If you, as a leader, make a mistake, you've done a great injustice. So be very careful and decide as accurately as you can whether to kick or to pat.'"

See http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1...

The problem with "feel bad" motivation strategies is that they only really work in the short term. Sure, putting tracking devices on employees increases productivity right then, but after a few months, once the employees have figured out how to game the system (or realize that the data from these devices isn't being scrutinized, because performing that kind of rigorous data analysis is expensive/time consuming), productivity will drop right back to where it was before.

Or worse, because now they have easy metrics to justify their "work", and if they were invested personally in the company you can bet they aren't now. Now it is an us-vs-them situation where they feel justified by doing the bare minimum as long as they satisfy the tracking methods.

Neither. What's even better (at least for creative workers like programmers and designers) is autonomy and ownership.

It has been a while - like 20 years - since I studied this, but I believe Denning concluded the same thing even for factory line workers.

Its W. Edwards Deming.

As you said in parenthesis, this really depends on the type of job. What autonomy and ownership will you give in jobs which dont require much thinking and are mostly monotonous? In such jobs, either of those things can work depending on the nature of average employee of the company.

Evidence used seems dubious. The worker productivity graph could just be reflecting the layoffs of workers that aren't productive, which often happens at the end of a massive bubble.

And restaurants where the management feels the need to install anti-theft systems, couldn't productivity increases be management being free to focus on other aspects of the business? Or thieves being caught or deciding to go elsewhere?

And is the restaurant a hotbed of creativity worthy of examination? And what were the longterm effects on employee and customer happiness?

Any business can probably be made to perform better in the short run. What is the long term effect of a change is a more important question.

Yes, this exactly, and observed in practice. Layoffs in non-union shops are not done by seniority (Talking manufacturing here) they are done by relatively objective measures of employee "goodness" things like attendance, piece productivity, safety procedure compliance, etc. We (in manufacturing) know this before the layoffs occur and account for it in financial and strategic planning. We also account for it when hiring starts again. Not only will skill levels go down, but far from the new folks arriving with universally great attitudes and work ethics after having been unemployed for a while, the incoming workers on average will be significantly less productive attitude wise than the existing workforce. This will only gradually improve until the next downturn. The newly hired who are truly terrible will probably get fired in the interim, the newly hired who are mediocre will bump along and be the first out the door during the next layoff. (And yes, the sad truth is that cyclical layoffs are a fact of life for many manufacturing workers)

I assume that this would apply in other industries as well.

Many people I know, including me, simply need to know that the outcome of the work matters. Shipping product that results in zero feedback is a motivation killer. Even a little customer feedback provides an immediate productivity boost whether the feedback is good or bad. Similarly, a back-office project with no visibility or customer connection would be hell.

Punishment works "well" in the short-term AND when the job market is bad AND for jobs that are low-skill where the employees are treated as interchangeable cogs. "Pampering" - or in most cases, simply showing that you respect and value your employees - works better in the long-term, regardless of the skill level of the employees. But too many companies are focused only on the short term.

The end of the article says, "If you're looking for a job, any job, try North Dakota." The article that links to blames the great ND economy on oil. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/the-geog...

Energy's partly responsible. But there's a more important reason that NoDak didn't suffer at all during the recession: its publicly-owned State Bank. It remained sane and stable and crime-free while those traits were rare in the other 49 states. Check it.

A sense of purpose. Long-term financial stability.

You could think of this in terms of Maslow's hierarchy - those seeking self-actualization should be the most productive. The trick is having both the security and freedom to pursue work with purpose and then finding work with a meaningful purpose that you identify with and are good at.

"Drive" by Dan Pink is a book I found to be a good read on motivation in general. I suggest anyone with some time to check it out. Book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

The way I see it none of those two items are what makes employee's work harder.

This one is a bit of a puff piece...

Workers work harder in a recession. No big surprise. But I fail to see a clear link between a recession and "punishment or pampering".

The one is a general climate which makes you value your job more, and the other is an act of relationship between you and your employer. It's not at all clear whether punishment or pampering is more effective at making you value your job (or your employer) more.

I would suspect that a more valuable line of approach than looking at recession statistics (who's going to manufacture a recession to get their employees to stay?) would be to ask a parent of children whether to use the carrot of the stick. They would probably point out that:

1)All their children are different and respond differently

2)Both negative and positive feedback are needed, but at different times, and in complicated ways.

Edit: clarity of language

Sure, this might work with manual labor sectors of the economy, but for driven people in science or the software world, a boss being an asshole will soon see himself surrounded by bad people. The good people go elsewhere and be productive. I've seen this happen many times.

This immediately reminded me of Dan Pink's - The puzzle of motivation - ted talk.


It focuses on how incentives affect the efficiency of creative jobs.

What makes an employer to think that harder == better?

Neither, I found my answer here a while back: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_...

I find it ridiculous that in 21st century people still hope that there will be one, easy-to-implement (and preferably instantly working and cheap as well) answer to this question. There are several (at least 20) different (de)motivators and each of us have his own configuration of them. But we still have to listen to the stick or carrot debate. Sigh....

The type of job must make a big difference in whether 'feel-bad' works better than 'feel-good'.

My to words are "respect" and "appreciation".

employees working harder/better is just like an engine running more powerful/faster. It is not necessarily translates into business/project success, ie. the question is what this engine attached to, where the car (if it is a car) is being driven to or may be it is just a snowplow moving snow from one place to another and back, until sun shines and snow melts away :)

My approach: nurturing, with sharp corrective feedback when necessary.

Technological and information processes are difficult to measure even in the best cases. As systems theorist Dennis Meadows notes, there are simple problems, in which solutions track monotonically better, and complex problems, in which the long-run preferred solution presents costs and negative growth in initial phases. We're willing to accept this for short-term projects with well-established trajectories: a new business launch, building or infrastructure construction. It's much more difficult to accept and sell such approaches where the problem space is novel, where there's little experience with it, where progress isn't particularly visible, and/or the timelines are long (Meadows' principle work has been in the area of resource and population limits, which expresses all of these characteristics).

My experience and observations are that:

- People and organizations both prefer stability and predictability. If I don't know from day to day that I'll have a job, that my door badge will work (among the reasons I find them psychically deadening, and I've heard similar views voiced unprompted by others -- "well, I've still got a job" as they entered the building), my productivity will suffer. Much of the shift of pressure in the past 40 years or so has been of risk from organizations onto individuals.

- Consistency in feedback helps. This is difficult with complex systems, and devising good metrics can be difficult. I've often provided harsh feedback for systems I use (of late, Google+, though it's annoying me less, today, GNOME in another H/N story). Though I'm doing so as someone outside the control structure of the organizations providing the service. It's one thing to take criticism from someone who can choose to stay or walk away, it's another when it comes from someone who can tell you to walk. One of the interesting aspects of Free Software development is that it very often divorces the technical criticism and workflow from employment. A kernel developer can hop from job to job, and still do the same work. They can be harshly criticized by Linus or others on LKML, but those people have no ability to fire the developer, only to make a decision to accept or not accept submissions.

- Organizational sanity helps. However (see my first point) organizations which themselves operate in high-risk environments are often poorly structured to be able to shield their employees from those pressures (and if you find yourself with management who succeeds in doing this, you've struck gold). Returning to Meadows' work, one challenge we're all facing are decreasing margins -- there was much more room for error in the 1950s - 1970s, it's vastly thinner now.

- I've had some experience working with children, and one of my observations was that giving them a fair amount of latitude, but very clear boundaries, seemed to maximize engagement, learning, independence, and discipline. The first time I really had to crack the whip I was amazed at how little chastisement went a long way (it was an effort not to slip while delivering my lecture). And it served to establish boundaries.

"Fair but firm" is what guides me. It doesn't work always, but it's a pretty good start.

Sorry to be so negative but what a moronic article.

Stimulation stimulates!

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