"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Punishment Or Pampering–Which Works Better?

We live in an age of feel-good self-esteem.  Everybody is great, and everyone is equal. Can’t color within the lines? No problem.  You can jump high.  Having trouble with your multiplication tables? That’s OK.  You have an engaging smile that makes others happy. 

Punishment – or at least harsh disapproval for failing to meet the minimum standards required by society (i.e. how to count and read) – is a thing of the past and smacks of Miss Trunchbull’s whacks on the knuckles with a stiff ruler.  Today, pampering in school is the norm. Still reading at a second grade level when you are in fifth?  “Try harder, sweetheart.  I know you can do it.”

       Quentin Blake, “Matilda” by Roald Dahl

Of course the shit hits the fan once these pampered children hit the streets. They don’t have to be able to read and write to flip burgers, but just about any other job requires some proficiency.  A bus driver, at least when he starts off on the N6 has to be able to read road signs; and even the ward councilman’s niece at the DMV has to be able to read customers’ queue numbers.

Most employers in a competitive economy will fire an employee if he doesn’t flip burgers fast enough, or if he continues to rack clothes wrong, or forget to show up on time.  Every company I know, whether soft non-profit or hard for-profit, gives no quarter when it comes to fucking up. All the pampering in school and the inflated praises at home have no currency in the marketplace.

I recently worked for a tough, bottom-line non-profit firm that dealt in poverty alleviation.  The mission was to make life better for the poor Africans suffering under the yokes of disease, illiteracy, and unemployment.  The company was proud, the President said, to apply the same policies of caring and concern to his employees.  It was all window dressing, of course.  There were far more bright young things anxious to do good works than jobs available, so the company demanded long hours at low pay; suffered no malcontents, and hired and fired with regularity.  Writing proposals and managing field projects was not code-breaking or heart surgery, so management rightly felt that they had no sunken costs in their lower-level employees.  Work, perform, and produce or you are out.

In other words, management saw no need to pamper employees, either to increase their benefits or to be generous and forgiving when it came to their faults.  Because each new, young employee saw a line of highly qualified job applicants at the front door, she worked her ass off to keep her job.

Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic (8.30.13) cities recent economic studies which show that during the recent recession, productivity went up.  Employees were scared of losing their jobs and worked harder:

According to economists Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn L. Shaw, and Christopher Stanton, the authors of a new paper "MAKING DO WITH LESS: WORKING HARDER DURING RECESSIONS”, employers made do with less because people worked harder during the recession. Fully 85% of increase in productivity came from workers' "increased effort."

No Miss Trunchbull had to come around with her ruler.  Employees felt the implicit, more powerful threat of job loss, and that was all they needed. In fact being employed in a high unemployment area increased productivity even for the least productive workers.

In communities where demand and supply are more equally matched, employers have found that surveillance increases productivity.  That is, if an employee knows he is watched at every turn – number of keystrokes tapped on the computer, articles scanned at the checkout counter, number of bathroom breaks taken in a workday, frequency of late punch-ins, etc.- he will work harder, more efficiently, and more productively.

A recent study measured the impact of surveillance cameras on retail theft.  Not surprisingly, theft went down with surveillance; but unexpectedly revenues and worker productivity went up:

The savings from the theft alerts themselves were modest, $108 a week per restaurant. However, after installing the monitoring software, the revenue per restaurant increased by an average of $2,982 a week, or about 7 percent.

What happened here? Yes, theft declined. That's to be expected. But also, revenue spiked. Productivity increased. Turning casual-dining restaurants into casual-dining panopticons made everybody work harder, perhaps by cutting down on procrastination or encouraging waiters to sell more drinks and appetizers to customers.

There are still those unreconstructed idealists who believe in their bones that treating people ‘properly’ is a moral imperative.  Corporations should accept lower productivity as the price for doing the right thing. The Feel Good Boss creates a congenial workplace:

Four-day workweeks mean more meaningful work hours. Shorter work days translate into better focus. More vacation time means heightened creativity. More short breaks means sharper attention to detail. More "toys" means more creative, playful employees who are necessary for out-of-the-box thinking.

Wrong, say the data.  Feel Good bosses will lose money every time.

The lesson here is not that the threat of punishment increases productivity.  Most of us know that intuitively.  It is about the serious disconnect between the feel-good, self-esteem child-rearing culture of today, and the increasingly competitive nature of the market.  Not only do our schools turn out students who cannot read or write, but these students have no idea that their ‘special’ talents and abilities will have value in the real world. It is double indemnity.  A student graduates with few saleable skills, no discipline, no fear of failure, and an overly optimistic view of himself and the world.

It is high time for school districts to shape up, re-establish intellectual and social discipline, retreat from idealistic pampering, reward high performance and call out the laggards, and create an educational model which resembles that demanded by employers and society.

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