Doing Well And Doing Good

George Leposky

Every year since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has given large sums of money to about 25 exceptionally creative and talented people – with no strings attached. Each recipient may spend the stipend (currently half a million dollars) as he or she desires. Most have used it to nurture their art, craft, profession, or science in the service of humanity and the planet.

I find the MacArthur Fellows Program intriguing because the selection criteria overtly favor self-directed people for whom money typically is among the least powerful motivators, if it even counts at all. What sets the goals and drives the achievements of these people? They derive satisfaction from doing well and doing good – taking personal pride in the work process and its product (whatever that may be) while accomplishing something beneficial.

One need not be a MacArthur Fellow to approach work – and life – that way. Within a recent two-day span, I encountered a postal clerk and a counterperson at a fast-food restaurant who set the tone for uncommonly positive retail experiences. Each of these people faced a long queue without haste or confusion. While providing efficient service, they engaged customers with a warm smile and cheerful conversation that erased the annoyance of waiting. Their positive demeanor added value to the product by making its purchase a meaningful human experience.

Employees may be required by corporate fiat to practice such behavior, and even may be trained in it, but they still won’t act that way unless they feel that they are doing well and doing good. Otherwise, they will just mark time while taking home enough money to meet basic needs and pay bills – a dreary accommodation that beats unemployment, but not by much.

Tangible Incentives

A large, multi-faceted industry has developed around the widespread belief that employees can be motivated to do well and do good by means of tangible incentives. Sales organizations in particular tend to rely on incentives such as plaques, monetary rewards, gifts of merchandise, and paid vacations for personnel who attain certain benchmark levels.

How well such incentives work depends upon several factors. First, has the employer correctly ascertained what motivates his or her employees? Absent such knowledge, a motivational program may not engender the feelings of efficacy that the employer intends.

Sometimes the problem lies in the nature of the incentive, other times in the way it is given. For example, the value of a bonus check for a certain amount can be minimized by unceremonious delivery, or amplified by packaging and presentation techniques that acknowledge the recipient’s contributions to the organization.

Even if the incentives and presentation arrangements are desirable, such programs can founder if the rules of the game aren’t clear and objective, based upon attainable goals.  If the playing field isn’t level and well-marked, employees who don’t receive incentives are likely to perceive the game as an arbitrary exercise in favoritism.

Rewarding Right Behaviors

Incentive programs also risk rewarding the wrong behaviors. In a sales context, generating more leads doesn’t help if the extra prospects don’t purchase, and closing more sales doesn’t help if returns and cancellations rise. Doing more is not necessarily the same as doing well and doing good, because working harder at doing the wrong thing is no substitute for working smarter and getting it right.

The Greatest Management Principle In The World (New York: Putnam, 1985; Berkeley Books, 1989), Dr. Michael LeBoeuf tells of a little girl who came home from kindergarten with a big paper button pinned to her dress. It read: CATCH ME BEING GOOD.

“That button,” LeBoeuf writes, “was sending a very important message from the teacher to the girl’s parents that said, in effect: ‘If you only pay attention to her when she misbehaves, you’re reinforcing bad behavior. But if you praise and reward her when she’s good, you’ll get more good behavior and help her develop into the person you want her to be.’

“To be sure, employees are not children, and I am not suggesting they be treated as such. But children and employees are people and people do whatever it takes to get others to recognize them. Managers who ignore quiet heroes and spend their time oiling squeaking joints may soon find everyone squeaking.”

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

For More Information

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – http://www.macfound.org/index.htm

The MacArthur Fellows Program - http://www.macfound.org/programs/fel/fel_overview.htm

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