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March 2003
Success Harmony Newsletter


There is a saying: "You get what you incentivize, not what you want." In other words, we get the actions that we reward. At the same time, we put a damper on those actions that we don't reward. As a result, being conscious of the intended and unintended feedback we send out may be one of the most powerful tools for improving our results, especially those we get through other people.

As an example, imagine a child, little Johnny, who won't pick up his toys. Mom comes home, is stressed out to the max from a hard day at work, and the last thing she feels she needs is to trip over those toys all over the place. She nags at Johnny over and over again. "Johnny, pick up your toys. Johnny, pick up your toys! Johnny, PICK UP YOUR TOYS!!!" Johnny may ignore her, or start crying, or pick up one toy one day and drop three more the next day. In any event, Mom may just get tired of seeing those toys all over her house and figure that, unless she picks up the toys, nobody will. So she does. Boom. What's the message to Johnny? A huge reward for enduring the nagging. He thinks to himself, "Aha! All I have to do is ignore the nagging long enough, and then I don't need to pick up the toys! Mom will do it for me!" In other words, Mom just unconsciously rewarded the very behavior she was trying to stop.

So, what are Mom's alternatives? She can figure that some punishment is in order. "OK, Johnny, I've had enough, I'm throwing out these toys right now!" Or perhaps, could some cajoling do the job? "Hey, Johnny, if you pick up your toys today, how about we go to get some ice cream?" In each case, Mom may get her intended result (the toys are off the floor), but may also get some unintended results. In the former case, Johnny may lose respect for Mom because he feels that Mom just arbitrarily lost it and became irrational. In the latter case, Johnny learns not to move a finger without a bribe.

How about a communication like this? "Johnny, I know that you love your toys and I want you to play with them. At the same time, when I come home from work, it makes me feel wonderful when I know that I can relax a little and that the house is clean. When I notice your toys on the floor, I get more stressed and I don't like that. Of course, I would love for you to pick up those toys and that would make me very happy. Also, you need to know what I will need to do when you don't pick them up yourself. At the end of each day, at 7 pm, I will walk around the house and pick up any toys abandoned on the carpet. I will put those toys in a garbage bag and leave them in the garage until Sunday at noon. Whatever is in the bag at that time, I will take to a charity and donate. Until that time, you can do chores to earn those toys back. Remember, I love you; I just don't like a mess on the floor. If you help me with this, you'll get to keep your toys and you'll have a much happier Mom as well." Then, of course, Mom needs to follow through - not with a "see I told you" attitude, but with a calm sense of purpose that this feedback loop to Johnny will help her, as well as Johnny and their relationship now and in the future.

I know, I know, I know. Those of you with children are saying that this is idealized. It may be, but it works. One lady in one workshop put up her hand when I shared this example and said, "My Mom did that to me when I was young." So I asked her how many times she did it. The lady said, "Twice. The second time, I lost my favorite Barbie doll and I paid attention after that." So I asked next how she felt about her Mom at the time. She said she wasn't happy, but that she respected her. Then I asked how she felt about what her Mom did, with the benefit of hindsight. The woman answered that she was thankful for a lesson delivered with love and strong boundaries. She said she believed that her Mom's lesson taught her strong work ethic and accountability. At the same time, she said that she never forgot how her Mom never got mad or stopped caring. Because of that, beyond some immediate pouting, the message got through without any resentment.

A good feedback loop has a few components: clear boundaries, consistency, constructive readjustment when things are off track, and positive reinforcement when things are on track. Also, the sooner the feedback, the better chance there is at affecting future actions. Overly restrictive, inconsistent or disrespectful boundaries cause rebellious behavior and are sure to backfire some time in the future. Clear and respectful boundaries with plenty of freedom within those boundaries may cause some immediate dissent, but they don't backfire later. Plenty of positive and specific reinforcement goes a long way and leads to more personal initiative. After all, who is more likely to become the next Olympic champion - the child who was scolded at every step, or the one whose steps were met with enthusiasm and belief in that child's greatness?


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"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."
Bill Cosby

"Put all your eggs in one basket and WATCH THAT BASKET!"
Mark Twain

"A problem cannot be solved from the same mindset that created it."
Albert Einstein




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© 2002 Pavla Michaela Polcarova, CPR Coaching Services, Vancouver, BC, Canada