The Carrot or the Stick

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The Carrot or the Stick

By Roy Strasburger - 01/15/2020

When I was young, I had a summer job working in a convenience store. My manager was an older man a c-store veteran. He was my first real retail boss. His name was Mr. Bernard and he took the time to explain to me what he wanted me to do, what the result should be, and what his expectations were of me in completing the task. 

Receiving the proper instruction was obviously very important and I performed the duties which, in this case, was emptying the shelves of product, dusting them, putting the product back, and fronting and facing everything. 

The task took me several hours and, when I finished, Mr. Bernard came over to inspect my work. He looked at the shelves, picked up a few items to look underneath them to see if the shelf was clean, and took a step back to survey the entire scene. After a moment’s silence, he turned to me and told me that those were probably some of the cleanest shelves he’d ever seen. My 12-year-old heart almost burst with pride knowing that I’d finished something that was not only done properly, but also had been praised for the quality of the work done.

A few days later, Mr. Bernard assigned me another task. Once again, he explained to me what needed to be done, how it should be done, and his expectations. This day’s task had to do with cleaning the front parking lot of the store. It was a hot August day in Texas, and I went to work cleaning up the parking lot: picking up trash, removing cigarette butts, and washing down the outside ice merchandiser box.

When I finished, Mr. Bernard came out. He walked around the parking lot and then stood quietly for a few moments. Eventually, he turned to me and said, “Roy, you’ve done a nice job, but it is not quite up to the standard that I know you can do. If you do a few extra things, like scraping up the bubblegum and picking up the dead crickets, it would go from being a good job to being an excellent job.” 

Even at that age, I knew that I had not met Mr. Bernard’s expectations. But the way the news was broken to me, in a positive manner and with instructions on how to make changes to do better, it wasn’t a slap on the wrist. I wasn’t crestfallen by my poor performance. I was actually motivated to do better because I could see the path to meet the expectations. It was not a negative interaction, but rather an opportunity to improve my performance and, additionally, myself.  Needless to say, in a couple of hours, there wasn’t any bubblegum and nary a cricket to be seen.

Mr. Bernard was a master trainer.

Positive reinforcement is the most effective way to develop skills and habits when training people. The ultimate training goal is to teach everyone how to perform to their maximum level in order to meet high standards and expectations. Typically, there are two methods to achieve this: the carrot or the stick.

I far prefer the carrot when I am helping someone learn something or when I’m the student. Using the stick, or negative reinforcement, only builds resentment within the student and lowers morale. Once a person’s attitude is on the downhill slide, it is very difficult to turn it around, and the negative attitude becomes infectious. Soon, your whole team will start developing negative attitudes and the workplace will become toxic.

The ironic thing is that positive reinforcement is almost as easy to use as negative reinforcement. Admittedly, positive reinforcement takes a little more thought sometimes. It is not always easy to see the positive upside of an inferior performance — you sometimes have to look for it. But you can also say that the absence of a negative reaction is actually a positive reaction in itself. Bottom line, if you don’t do something mean, then you’re actually doing something positive.

At StrasGlobal, we have tried to develop, and continue to work on, creating a humane and caring environment for our teammates. We are always preaching the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I believe that everyone wants to be treated with kindness and fairness. Therefore, if that is the way you want to be treated, that is the way you should treat others.

This does not mean that there should not be discipline or negative consequences to actions or the failure to meet expectations. What it does mean, I think, is that in most cases, people should be given a second chance and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The phrase, “constructive criticism,” often gets a raised eyebrow as being code for telling someone off in a nice way, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. As long as you’re being honest and positive with your feedback to someone, then the comments are valid and have value.

When setting expectations, it is important that there is a clear understanding as to what happens if the expectations are not met. Whether it is a chance to redo the task, a requirement of more training to be done, or termination, the consequences need to be clearly communicated and confirmation received that the listener has understood them and taken them onboard.

It is only when the actor understands the full scope of the plan and the impact of the results that he or she can actually perform the task and learn from it. Just having someone go through the motions without an understanding of the purpose will not create expertise or a skill set in and of itself.

Positive reinforcement can be done in several ways. In addition to handing out pats on the back, there can be material rewards as well as intangible ones. The classic tangible positive reinforcement is when a prize, such as a dinner, cruise or trophy, is presented to the person completing the task. Examples of intangible reinforcements are putting someone’s name on a plaque, making them the employee of the month, or giving them a special shout-out during a company gathering.

Of course, the prize and the reinforcement must reflect the scale of the task. The reward for properly cleaning the parking lot should be different than the reward for meeting sales objectives, but the impact to the recipient should be the same — a feeling of recognition and appreciation for a job well done.

Having said that, I do not believe in participation trophies. You know what those are you get an award for just showing up. No effort is required except for being present. The reward must be based on the accomplishment of a specific objective. Otherwise, all of your motivational techniques will be worthless and will fail to deliver the desired results.

It is also important that the reward system is consistent and applicable to everyone who is doing the same task. In addition to training the proper conduct, this leads to a sense of team-building and bonding. One of the most interesting things we have tried is where is the entire team benefits from the positive reinforcement for one person’s actions. For example, if a team member completes a training module, then the entire team gets pizza to celebrate the event. I do not recommend the opposite — punishing the entire team for the failure of one person. Once again, that becomes demoralizing and negative.

A final byproduct of positive reinforcement is that it makes you feel good about the way you are helping people. A positive encounter with a person, even when they have not met your expectations, allows you to feel better about your performance and yourself. 

I firmly believe that we have an innate instinct to be nurturers and to help others. It is also natural to feel the need to exert your power over someone when you are in position of power. Overcoming the desire to show your authority through negative comments and actions is one of the steps toward being a great teacher and leader. 

As the old saying goes, “you catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.” If you use positive reinforcement, you will be building a long-term relationship with your student.

When I find myself in a teachable moment, either as the teacher or the student, I think of Mr. Bernard and how he helped me grow and understand the power of positive reinforcement. I think he helped me to become a better person. 

Carrots are not only good for your eyes; they are good for your soul.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

About the Author

Roy Strasburger

Roy Strasburger

Roy Strasburger is president of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry nationwide. Read More