“Reward what you want repeated,” was something that has rattled around in my head for years. In fact, one of my first posts on this site was about that and recently I saw this phrase as I was reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. He reinforced my beliefs and then added the ‘why’.

The basic premise of reward what you want repeated is that when we give rewards (positive or negative), we are encouraging or discouraging a specific behavior. Something as simple as pointing out the action someone takes that reinforces the culture you are trying to nurture will encourage them to continue doing that action and those who see the reward will desire to mimic their peers. This is why commanders publicly coin Airmen for seemingly small things. This triggers something innate within others.

This innate feeling is what James Clear touched on in his book. He uses this instinct as he teaches people to create or break habits. Here is a broad brush view of this idea: think about smoking. There is not a single person on this planet who would argue smoking is good for you and almost everyone agrees the long term effects are very damaging; however, cigarettes and tobacco products are still flying off of the shelves. Our brains can’t picture ourselves in 20-30 years and adjust for that. We see and believe what is right here and now and smoking this one cigarette had no noticeable impact on me right now, so I can just quit before the bad stuff happens.

If we wanted to impact a smoking habit, we need to make the benefit or punishment immediate. This could mean every time you pass on a pack of smokes, you put that money aside for a trip you want to take or for something else you want to buy. Seriously stop right then, pull out your phone, open your bank app and transfer the money into your “vacation” account. Now the reward for not smoking is immediate as you see that account grow. You could also invert this idea as a punishment. Every time you buy a pack of cigarettes, you have to give money to a friend or something else that is immediate and visible.

Leaders can leverage this to foster the environment they are trying to create. For example, you want to increase the quality of work your team is producing. You could go on and on with lectures or public shaming of reading QA fails to the masses. We have all seen how pointless that is as the effects wear off within a week and you are right back to doing the same thing. OR you could get into the mix and seek the small victories. When you see a small example of something that contributes to better quality, call it out. Give a high five, fist bump, or brag about this person to others. This needs to happen often and immediate to create the new behavior you are striving for.

I have employed this method or have seen it employed on teams for years and there has been a 100% success rate. Everytime I have see this strategy employed it has worked and these leaders simultaneously earned the trust of their teams because they were seen as being visible, interested and involved. Rewarding the behavior you want repeated is a simple way to be a more effective leader and it is something you can begin immediately.

Here is the post I referenced in the beginning: Reward What You Want Repeated.

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