Don’t Blame Amazon! High Performance Cultures Have Consequences

Don’t Blame Amazon! High Performance Cultures Have Consequences
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Whether You Like It or Not, High Performance Cultures Have Consequences
We were familiar with it as we grew up and then later as we tried to teach our children the right way to behave – it was the “carrot and stick” philosophy.  Our performance research tells us that high performance cultures have consequences.  Of course they have strong rewards and recognition tied to high performance, but they also have clear, fair, and transparent consequences for sub-par performance.

The Carrot and The Stick Approach
The carrot and stick approach is an idiom referring to a cart driver who dangles a carrot in front of a mule to motivate forward progress while at the same time holding a stick behind to urge them forward if the carrot doesn’t work. Basically, it is a policy of combining rewards and consequences to motivate desired behaviors.

All well and good. What we can’t understand is how, in the business world, leaders have lost sight of the power of the stick.  Many leaders seem to believe that behavior is driven only by rewards.

What the Research Says
Based on 16+ years of high performance research with elite institutions such as Harvard, the U.S. Special Forces, Cisco, Accenture, MIT, NASA, Juilliard, and the Olympic Games, we have found that clear consequences and accountability, when done right, are a key ingredient to performance improvement. The pressure to perform (symbolically the stick) is a necessary component to building high performance environments. The key is to make sure that the consequences and accountability are:

  • known in advance
  • fair
  • proportionate
  • timely
  • accurate
  • transparent
  • meaningful

If the above attributes are in place, consequences help motivate team members to avoid failure and achieve success more effectively than with just the carrot alone.

An Example with Amazon
We take issue, for example, with an article published recently on the BBC News web site  that was critical of the way Amazon tried to deal with theft in their warehouses. Citing a report by Bloomberg, the article talked about Amazon’s screening of video clips that were designed to show what happens when employees are caught stealing.

Not surprisingly, these employees, when caught, were fired. Some considered these videos offensive. Sure they may not be pleasant viewing, but they leave no confusion about the consequences of warehouse theft. Assuming that the above attributes were in play, this is clearly an example of how to create higher levels of accountability.


RELATED ARTICLE: How to Successfully Recognize and Reward Organizational Change


Use Carrots and Sticks Together
As part of a balanced and high performance culture, we believe that the carrot and stick should be wisely used together to motivate higher levels of performance. But we also know that performance pressure must be carefully watched and offset by other factors. If you create too much or too little performance pressure, your culture may suffer even if you have the “right” people and a “great” strategy.

High versus Low Performers
Meaningful and purposeful cultures make employees proud and motivated to do their best at every task. High performers seem to do this effortlessly. But low performers often need to be helped and motivated to do their best. This is where the stick sometimes comes in.

  • For low performers your culture of accountability should require that substandard performers (when given needed support) must improve relatively quickly (~90 days) if they wish to remain employed. This “improve with support or move on” mentality ensures that people focus on and are rewarded for pre-agreed-to performance standards.
  • For high performers, just imagine how they feel if they are required to work with low performers.  High performers become disengaged if there are no consequences for missing targets. Additionally, top talent are apt to wonder if the value associated with striving for excellence is worth it if the leaders don’t seem to notice or care when others slack off.

The Bottom Line
While we certainly believe that intrinsic motivation and positive reinforcement is a critical component to a high performance workplace, we also know that the highest performing organizations create an organizational culture with very clear performance standards and consequences for failing to meet minimal expectations.  Do you have the right balance of expectations, rewards, and consequences to execute your people and business strategies?

If you want to learn more about how high performance cultures have consequences, download The Science Behind Performance Expectations

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