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High Ground Isn’t Always The Right Ground



I can take the high ground sometimes.  Pontificating about how you should run an incentive and reward program.  I can.  Really, I can.

But at the end of the day I know something needs to get done.  Businesses need to see impact, results – dare I say it… ROI.

And sometimes dong the right thing isn’t the right answer.  Sometimes just doing something is better than doing nothing – or even worse – investing in the right thing – and seeing no results.  That’s wasting money AND not getting the outcomes you want.

This concept came home to roost yesterday as I reviewed the various articles on incentives and rewards coursing through the veins of the world wide web.  A school in Cincinnati is getting some heat for running an incentive program to get kids to show up at school.  They offer a $50 gift card to seniors that attend school for a week – underclassmen (or is that underclass people in today’s PC world) get $10 a week (do I smell a 1%-er argument brewing here?)

Some of the comments from the high ground include:

“…Center for Applied Motivation, a Washington-based private consulting agency, referred to the Dohn plan as shortsighted during a Cincinnati Enquirer interview. Director Peter Spevak feels the program offers false motivation and creates a sense of entitlement. Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr. studied similar programs at urban districts and discovered incentives often help increase attendance and positive behaviors but do not bolster increased academic prowess, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.”

Short-sighted and does not increase academic prowess.  Wow.

Sometimes We Need to Focus on What We CAN Control

I find this interesting because the school in question is a “charter” school run by a KIPP – a private foundation.  And… the school is, to quote the article – “comprised of primarily low-income and minority students.”  I read that as “at risk.”

At risk for not completing high school.  At risk of getting into trouble if not in school.  At risk of falling victim to the outcomes that typically accompany too much free time and too little oversight. 

The program is designed to GET KIDS TO SCHOOL.  There is nothing in the design of the program other than that.  The school has a problem.  Kids aren’t getting educated because… wait for it… because THEY AREN’T THERE!

Those on the moral high ground can talk about how this program doesn’t tap into their self-esteem or their intrinsic desire to learn.  And they would be right.

But let me ask this…

Do you think the odds of getting these kids to learn is greater if they are at the school or if they are at home watching MTV (do kids even watch MTV anymore?)

I’m betting that the teachers have a better chance of connecting and helping these kids if they are in the classroom than if they are at the 7-11.

Look At Your Company

Sure…we’d all like engaged, committed and involved employees.  But sometimes the best solution is a simple one – get them to do ONE thing that gives you the opportunity to do 10 more things.

The high ground is a fun place to hang out if you don’t have to get anything done.

Don’t dismiss incentives as bad just because you can’t see the application from all the way up at the top of the ivory tower.  They do work. 


Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence

12 Responses to “High Ground Isn’t Always The Right Ground”

  1. Scrandall31 says:

    Paul — I love it when you get all indignant — especially when you’re right!

  2. […] the whole post over at Paul Hebert’s I-2-I (an FOT contributor blog) jQuery(document).ready(function($) { […]

  3. You seem to be conflating “the high ground” with “ivory tower intellectualization”. This is an incorrect conflation. Your piece sounds like a total cop-out. There’s a BIG difference between “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” and “doing something just to say we did SOMETHING.”

    ALWAYS do the right thing. And if the “right thing” isn’t leading to the desired outcome, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing. It means you need to re-examine – the facts, the assumptions, the plan, the execution, the analysis. 

    If doing the “right thing” was easy, parents wouldn’t have been telling children for thousands of years the importance of always doing it and the perseverance required to do so.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Seth – thanks for weighing in… You’re right – I’m making the connection that ivory tower is somehow morally superior by using the “high ground” description.   But I did it on purpose because of the way in which those in the original article were looking down their noses at the activities the school was doing to drive attendance.  

      If we can ever agree on what the “right” thing to do is when it comes to motivation then I’ll be in agreement with “do the right thing.”  But I’m not talking about what is “right” or “easy” – I’m talking about what is necessary… and it applies in business as well as  in the school issue in the article.

      Getting kids to school is critical… getting someone to sell something is critical.

      You can tell me that the long-term motivations for both those audiences are “best” served through autonomy, mastery and purpose – or whatever pop-psychology is in vogue… however, both the school and the business will both fail before the audience achieves the level of performance needed to either stay in business (or in the students case – stay out of jail.)

      I’m talking about the fine line between doing something that will have results in the short term even IF they may go against the “perfect” solution. 

      It’s not a cop-out… it’s an important discussion as I watch more companies ignore good solutions in favor of “right” solutions that won’t allow them to achieve their goals in the time required.

      • Hey sorry it took so long to respond (I wasn’t ignoring you on Twitter, I just got caught up in work ; )

        I understand your rebuttal, and I’m not unsympathetic to your position, but ultimately we disagree. 

        You do yourself and your argument a disservice by using the pejorative, negatively-connoted term “ivory tower” in conjunction with the term “high ground”. By doing so you imply – and then explicitly confirm that implication later – that the idea of doing what’s right is only for pampered isolated intellectuals who have no understanding of “reality”, and that really serious actual professionals understand that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to get the results, even it requires using means of lesser morality. 

        In short, you’re making the Jack Bauer argument: there’s not enough time to do it right, so we’d better torture the hell out of the bad guy to get the answers we need.

        The “fine line between doing something that will have results in the short term even IF they may go against the ‘perfect’ solution” is a very, very thinly veiled apology for the idea that ends justify the means. And if there’s one thing we can ALL agree on (I hope) it’s that a policy whose sole goal is expedient short term results is the mother of a brood of unintended consequences. 

        The people looking down their noses at the charter school are doing so for a good reason. Paying students to attend school is utterly idiotic and counter-productive. It sends entirely the wrong message and will harm those students more than it will help them, on a number of levels. 

        The short term goal they serve – getting butts in the seats – is placed far ahead of attempting to solve the larger problems that keep the kids out of the seats in the first place while blithely ignoring the very likely, obvious unintended consequences. At the end of the experience, the only true lesson taught is “If I do nothing (or act counterproductively) long enough, then someone will compensate me monetarily for doing the bare minimum requirements.” What kind of employees and parents will these people grow up to be, if this is the lesson they learn? 

        At some point, there must be some self-responsibility. If your employees do not have enough base-line self-responsibility to do the basic requirements of the job with special motivation, that you must rely on this kind of short-term focused, anti-“high ground” policy, then go back to my previous post – you need to re-examine your situation and see what needs to be changed. How did these losers get here? Why are they still here? What am *I* doing, if anything, that’s de-motivating them further? Are they even really losers, or are they not performing well for some other reason?

        Those are important questions that NEED answering. Changing the way you incentivize your employees will not address the core issues the organization may have.

        Incentives do NOT change culture. They do NOT solve problems. They are NOT primary motivators. Incentives ARE, with appropriate design and applied in the right time and manner, are very good at positively reinforcing desired behaviors. 

        Sorry for the Tolstoy here, but I wanted to come at you with a complete response, worthy of your time and the energy you devote to your blog and your readers. We may disagree, but I’m glad you put this out there to start a discussion! I think this is an important issue for businesses of all sizes. Hopefully our debate is food for thought for others, too : )

        • Paul Hebert says:

          Frankly Seth – this blog does me no good if I don’t get good solid push back on what I’m thinking.  I benefit more than the readers do in most cases.  Thanks for taking what obviously was a bit of time to lay out your point of view.

          You’re right – I was probably in a bad mood on the day I wrote this and it comes across in my positioning.

          I do not always agree with incentives as a solution – in fact one of my best posts is that incentives are your worst first choice.  So I think we are in more agreement than not.
          What I was trying to convey is that incentives – if done correctly CAN be an effective way to break behavioral inertia – and that is what I find many companies are missing.  And that was what I’m talking about.  Incentives need to be short-term and behavior based.  Once the inertia is broken then additional influence techniques can be applied to get to the core issues you bring up.  Never continue an incentive when it’s not needed – because as you indicated it now becomes an entitlement and actually can decrease productivity.  

          Incentives should not be used for what I would call “openers” – I’m not a fan of incentives for coming in on time.  However, I do make exceptions for students and others who may not have the same “adult” point of view.

          I would don’t advocate incentives for openers…. that falls under the “punishment” part of motivation – another post, another day probably.

          Thanks again… really appreciate you taking time to connect here and offer up some great insight.

  4. Barry Kahan says:

    Imagine, two different points of view, and having an interesting and adult conversation on opposing views. Seems others could learn from the two of you in the ultimate city of ivory towers :) . Best part about Paul’s piece…it started a discussion. Bravo! 

    Of course, Seth lost me when he dared bring in a reference to 24 and Jack Bauer….Jack always wins. heck he even beats death.

    Nice job guys!

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for weighing in.  I have always enjoyed the back and forth of good debate and conversation.  And frankly – don’t tell anyone – I might just take a position I don’t agree with just to test my own beliefs and my own willingness to listen.  

      And I agree … Jack Bauer is always right – even when he’s wrong.

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