the-beatings-will-continueI’ve written about why cascaded personal objectives and contingent rewards aren’t a good idea.

Question: What’s the worst form of this practise?

Answer: A rigged game.

Now clearly, contingent rewards are set by those (hierarchically) above you so as to strongly encourage you to comply with their wishes. That’s the whole point. But we should be very clear that compliance should not be mistaken for motivation.

“Rewards and punishments induce compliance, and this they do very well…but if you want long term changes in behaviour…they are worse than useless – they are actually counter-productive.” (Alfie Kohn)

The rigged game explained:

Consider if the objectives being set and the carrots/ sticks on offer really mean the following:

Carrot: “We’ll pay you money for saying what we want you to say…which will then make us look good…and is effectively buying you.”


Stick: “If you don’t act as we want, we will make sure that you will lose out and even be disciplined.”

If a politician did this, they would be hung out to dry!

There was an interesting article on Stuff recently regarding an Australian company (Cotton On) that could easily be accused of playing this rigged game. Here’s an extract of that article, referring to their HR department’s leaked* four page code:

Failure to portray “fun, entrepreneurial, keeping it real, family, ethical, engaged” behaviour was unacceptable, the Australian clothing chain said.

It could result in counselling, warnings or instant dismissal, according to the four-page code** which was leaked to Fairfax Australia newspaper The Age.

* you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see why it was leaked…being told to have fun ‘or else’ is quite a message to stomach!

** the need for a four-page code speaks volumes about a lack of trust. (Does your organisation trust you?)

Surveys linked to rewards:

Another example of rigging would be if you ask people to fill in a survey and then link (some aspect of) their rewards to the results of that survey. You can’t say that the outcome of such a survey can be unbiased.

An organisation’s culture will not be understood from reviewing survey results that merely capture how people felt they were expected to answer. In fact, the reverse is the case – the results from such a survey will hide, distort and confuse… leading to ignorance of the true state of play and the wrong conclusions being drawn.


I personally dislike the idea that an organisation thinks it needs to tell me what specific ‘attitudes’ I should be adopting at work. What is much worse (and moves towards the rigged game) is that I am then rated and rewarded according to their judgement as to how well I meet them! This is not far removed from the Cotton On example.

The only difference is that Cotton On were daft enough to spell out the ‘stick’ as opposed to concentrating on the ‘carrot’….but this misses the point that, in every carrot there is a hidden stick (that you can be denied the reward).

The crucial point:

Our behaviours are a result of the environment in which we find ourselves.

If you want me to be motivated, happy, collaborative, engaged, ‘real’ … [keep going with a long list of words in a dictionary that are blindingly obviously desirable!]…don’t tell me to BE these words…don’t blackmail me to SAY that I am these words….provide the environment such that I AM these words!

Oh, and the final crunch point: I (and most normal human beings) actually WANT to be motivated, happy, collaborative, engaged, ‘real’. I’d be weird if I didn’t. It’s down to the management system (which defines the environment that I work within) that determines whether I can be.

The above is perfectly reflected in the saying “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.

A clarification: I’m certainly not saying that attitude isn’t important. In fact, I think that ‘attitude’ is just about the most important thing there is for a human being!

Here’s one of my favourite quotes ever (I have it on my wall at home and at work):

“The longer I live, the more I realise the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, gift, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude.

I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes”. (Charles Swindoll).

It is this quote that often helps me write these (professionally provocative) posts. My attitude is that there’s not a lot of point in moaning about my environment. I choose to try to do something about it.

2 thoughts on “Blackmail

  1. As much as I agree with the blog topic and the Swindoll quote, I wonder if too many employers misinterpret such quotes and assume that that way we behave at work is all down to our attitude, within our control, and therefore we choose whether to be “fun, innovative, keepin’ it real” etc. There’s a difficult juxtaposition between the topic and the quote that could be easy to misinterpret if your head is in the wrong place….


    • Hi Adrienne. I’ll add this comment for any command-and-control managers attempting to misinterpret: This post is written in the context of all my others on this blog site, and that (paraphrasing Deming) ‘95% of our failure to meet customer expectations is down to the system and only 5% down to the worker – the role of management is to improve the system rather than badgering the worker to do better’…and his red bead experiment demonstrates this rather nicely.


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