All modern employee engagement and reward literature encourages managers not to punish failure. The collective wisdom is that punishing failure will discourage risk-taking and stifle creativity. Depending on your business this could be damaging to your business. What about the opposite? What if we punished the lack of failure? How would that alter things? So let’s look at punishing failure versus punishing a lack of failure.
Prison for not making a prediction
The inspiration for this post came from the story of the Italian earthquake scientists who were sentenced to prison for NOT predicting an earth quake that killed hundreds of Italians. Stephen Dubner, writing for Freakonomics, asked the question What is wrong with punishing bad predictions? Dubner points out in his post that the scientists were not punished for making a bad prediction. Rather they were punished for not making a prediction. In essence they got sent to prison for not failing in making a bad prediction. He surmised that if they had made a prediction of a massive earthquake that turned out to be wrong they would not have suffered the same consequences of not making a prediction.
Failure in a business setting
Let me try to translate this to the work place with a social media example. The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) in marketing sounds the alarm bell and says that social media advertising is the wave of the future for the company’s product line. They recommend the company spends $200,000 on converting and setting up social media. New people are hired to monitor Twitter and Facebook. And then nothing happens. No Tweets, no Likes. What are the likely consequences for this person?
Let’s reverse the situation now. In this half of the scenario the CMO says social media is all hype. “It is a fad that will wither on the vine.” So no investment is done in social media. Indeed they get HR to write a social media policy that forbids anyone using Twitter, Facebook or even LinkedIn while on company time. So no movement is made into using social media. However, a competitor starts marketing though social media and quickly becomes an industry leader supplanting the CMO’s company. What are the consequences for this person?
Which of these failures deserves to be “punished”, the one that failed by acting on something or the one who failed by not acting? Does it depend on the size of the failure in dollars or people impacted? If we acted like the Italian government we would punish the person that did not act. Many businesses might be more inclined to punish the first person.
How would you deal with this? My preference would be to punish the CMO who did nothing versus the CMO who made the incorrect prediction. But that is me. I would like some of you HR people and motivation specialists to weigh-in on this discussion.
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