Rewarding the Wrong Behavior is a Failure of Leadership

by Michael Haberman on July 11, 2011 · 8 comments

The Atlanta Public School system has recently become an example of what can go wrong if you have a failure of leadership. The story is one of improper strategic goals, rewarding the wrong behavior, punishing the correct behavior, human resources setting the wrong example and “the leader” more interested in personal success than the success of the organization. In case you have not been paying attention to national news stories, national newspapers, TV, radio or late-night comedians let me tell you the story.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution started the entire process by uncovering potential cheating around some remarkable academic progress that was being reported by the school system. The superintendent had set the goal of improving academic performance, specifically in the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Under her leadership schools started to show some remarkable improvement, especially in some of the poorer neighborhoods. The school system started to win awards and the superintendent herself won accolades and national attention. But people were sceptical, so investigations were started and these investigations began to encover cheating in connection with the tests. Evidence was found of erasures on the tests that were not in character with how a student might erase a wrong answer. Stories started to surface of improper help from teachers to answer the tests correctly. So with these results the looking got deeper and deeper. The questions got harder and harder ultimately culminating in a report released by the Office of the Governor of Georgia. The picture was not pretty. What it showed was:

  • A culture of cheating  encouraged from the top
  • Rewards for cheating including bonuses for principles with “excellent” testing improvement
  • Threats of job action for not cheating. Teachers reported intimidation if they did not participate.
  • Unethical behavior on the part of human resources, general counsel, management, principals and teachers. This included lying and destruction of official paperwork.
  • Some teachers and principals would hold “erasure parties” during which they would wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the tests.

There are several reasons this failure of the school system occurred and it can be experienced by any organization.  These reasons include:

  1. Setting unreasonable goals. (Improved performance that could not be reasonably obtained. And once obtained must be perpetuated.)
  2. Rewarding  the wrong behavior. (Public acclaim, plaques, and money became more important than student improvement.)
  3. Ignoring reports of wrong doing and punishing the whistleblowers. (Threats of job action to “correct” behavior.)
  4. Participating in illegal behavior. (Deleting computer files and emails and destroying paper files and test copies.)

The ultimate outcome of the investigation showed cheating and unethical behavior on the part of 178 educators and found cheating in 44 of 56 schools. There was a failure of leadership from the superintendent on down. Particularly distressing was the wrongdoing the chief human resources officer is accused of , such as destroying documents of early reports of wrongdoing and withholding information to investigators. While the superintendent gained fame and principles got bonuses the students lost, especially those students who actually needed help. One such student, who had “passed with high marks” the reading test, could not in fact, read. But due to his results he received no help.

It is a sad story that has several HR lessons. These include:

  • You get the behavior you reward
  • You can change behavior through punishment
  • Ethics must come from the top
  • The organization fails if the leader becomes more important than the organization.

It will be awhile before the system, the city, the business community and the students recover. I will keep you up to date.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Ryan July 11, 2011 at 8:28 am

I had not seen this story. It is truly disheartening to read. I worry about the decline of our daily newspapers and who is going to be the watch dog if more and more of them go by the wayside.


Mark July 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm


Spellcheck won’t help you with this one–you have to know the right word. Several times you used the word “principles” when you actually are referring to “principals.” Otherwise, a very principled indictment of the principals failures.


Michael Haberman July 13, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Thank you Mark. Hopefully I corrected them all.


Derek Irvine, Globoforce July 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Michael, excellent post and excellent illustration of what’s wrong with the reward programs implemented in many organizations today. Too little thought is given to how outcomes can be interpreted – especially in If/Then-style rewards. So much better to use Now/That programs. (Dilbert’s take on rewarding the wrong behaviors: )

Even then, it can come down to the distinction between STATED values and TOLERATED values – and how those are recognized and rewarded. In this case, it doesn’t matter that Integrity is a stated value. It became clear to teachers and administrators that lack of integrity is tolerated as long as results are achieved.
(More on stated v. tolerated values: )


Michael Haberman July 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm

An excellent comment. You are correct about too little thought with no determination of the potential consequences. Thanks for the links.


TNS Employee Insights July 21, 2011 at 11:43 am

While your article is disheartening, it is an eye opener. Ethics is a problem in our country and needs to be addressed. All you have to do is open a newspaper business section to know that the highest leaders are unethical.


Michael Haberman July 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Well unethical behavior is not restricted to business leaders. Obviously educators in Atlanta had the same issues. And let us not forget politicians and church leaders.


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