Leadership Skills: Be Aware of Reward Reversal

older businessman with glassesHave you ever done something really dumb that seemed exceedingly smart at the time?

Yeah, me too.

So I’d like to talk about and examine “social traps.” One common social trap is a phenomenon called “reward reversal.”

Reward reversal happens when one indulges a behavior for one benefit (like smoking or drinking to fit into a group) and continues the behavior for a different benefit (to thwart withdrawal symptoms).

What happens in this trap is that the “reward” for engaging in the behavior reverses over time — from pursuing a positive outcome to preventing a negative one.

Many life experiences can be best understood as results of reward reversal. For instance, how many people do you know who are “stuck in a dead-end job” they once described as “a brilliant opportunity” for themselves?

To take this concept further, consider for a minute the actual consequences of our learning to “succeed” in institutions that developed, measured, and rewarded individual achievement (i.e., besting our peers by doing “our own work” from first grade through college and in early jobs) only to find ourselves challenged one day by our distaste for team work! (“What do you mean, you don’t want to rely on the team for your performance measurement? “Aren’t you a team player?!”… “Well, no, as a matter of fact…but I’m a great individual achiever.”)

When we “lock in” and turn a behavior into a habit, and then miss the signs of reward reversal, we experience a variety of negative emotions — including depression, resentment, and anger.

If reward reversal is not taken into account during organization change, workers can lose track of fun, creativity, rapport and the very meaning of their work.

So, what can we do to be wise rather than reactive about reward reversal?

The most important thing I’ve learned to do for myself is to recognize reward reversal when it occurs. To do this, I practice being intentional about choices every minute of every day (or as much as I can) instead of operating on auto-pilot.

When I find myself complaining about something, I ask myself why I’m doing it. And then listen to my internal answer.

Remember, upsets are opportunities to learn. If you don’t like what you hear when you ask yourself why you’re doing something, take it as an opportunity to reexamine your choices.

Once we can do this for ourselves, we can also learn to recognize signs of reward reversal in others on our teams.

Then we can compassionately help them examine their choices and the reasons for their choices — instead of wasting energy either waiting out — or running from — other people’s  chant of complaints.

Get Started With This Week’s 5-Minute Stretch

Which activities in your life have you put on auto-pilot? Try this: take 5 or 6 of them and put them on manual during the coming week.

Then ask yourself: are they still positively rewarding? Are they still intentional? How can you tell? See if you can get 25 percent better at recognizing rewards that are reversing in your life this week.

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

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