Punish or reward?

One of the most important lessons I learned as an educator was that rewards work better than punishment when controlling my children’s behavior. That’s partly because I’m not much of an enforcer, but also because my kids became more compliant with the promise of going to bed fifteen minutes later than the threat of less pocket money. The proverbial carrot worked better than the stick. But while we’ve embraced this principle in parenting thanks to Skinner for a century, we seem to forget it in the adult world.

We stumble upon rules that threaten fines or expulsion if people pay late, fail to report a change in their circumstances, or forget to return their library books. We hope that this will steer their behavior in a desired direction, but punishment is not always the most effective way. You can suppress unwanted behavior with punishment, but it does not automatically lead to the desired behavior. You can give a fine for late payment, but this does not mean that the money will be received earlier. In fact, it often costs extra time and money to collect those fines.

In addition, punishment has all sorts of negative side effects. It can, for example, reinforce inequality in society. If you have enough resources, a fine of a few euros for returning your library book late may not be an obstacle. But if you have less to spend, that may be a reason not to borrow books at all. And we see again and again that fines are precisely the people who are not very wealthy, end up even further in debt.

Another consequence of all kinds of penalty clauses in regulations is that it leads to a negative relationship between those involved. The dominant party tries to subjugate the other by force to its interests. The tax authorities, the municipality or the library thus become a bogeyman for some people, with whom you would like to have as little to do as possible. Not a constructive way to close the gap between government and society.

We see time and time again that fines put people who are not very wealthy even further into debt

With rewards, the desired behavior leads to positive consequences for both parties, which immediately puts the relationship in a brighter light. For example, I was very charmed by a self-employed colleague who offered a cream cake every quarter to the client who paid her invoices the fastest. This always resulted in a happy winner and positive relationship management, but also ensured that she spent much less time chasing debtors.

In marketing and sales, it is very common to use reward instruments, with all sorts of benefits for quick decision makers and customers, helping to make processes run more smoothly and cheaply. Perhaps an early discount for paying taxes works better than a penalty for late payment. And can we reward relationships that comply with the rules well with faster procedures or priority in the allocation. Or with a free book if they hand in their books on time for a year.

In any case, it is worth investigating whether we can offer people a carrot a little more often. Or a cream cake.

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