Sunday, August 15, 2010

When Culture Meets Incentive

I know I've written a few times before here on the site about how when various cultures coming together; just to recap, I firmly aver that it's okay to acknowledge and even embrace the best parts of other cultures while still hanging to the 'better' aspects of your own. Sometimes, when 'multiculturalism' is discussed in open forums, the former is considered part of the conventional wisdom, but the latter gets left out of the equation at worst, it gets written off as xenophobia.

Anyway, one aspect of 'Western' culture that I really dig is the value we place on punctuality, because I think it generally shows a certain respect level for other people's time. Sure, an 11:00 lunch can mean 11:05, or even 11:15, but if one party is not even making the effort after twenty minutes, that tells me that he or she feels it's just not that important.

So a couple weeks ago, when my first-ever cruise was getting ready for its scheduled departure from King's Wharf, Bermuda, the armchair sociologist in me had an interesting chance to observe the intersection of culture (the several nations' worth of passengers included many from habitually 'late' cultures) and incentive (it was made crystal clear that anyone NOT on board by 5:00 p.m. on departure day would be stuck on the island and personally responsible for getting back to wherever they came from).

So which do you think won?

No question at all, the incentive not to miss the boat, literally, and be on the hook for some steep airline tickets back to wherever (not to mention costs of luggage recovery) carried the day. More than two thousand people had made it back to where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be -- not a single passenger was late. I had to underline that last sentence because anyone who has even tried to organize a dinner party for more than five people knows the logistical challenges of getting even a handful of people together by a set time is next-to-impossible. Even in the military, we like to say that, "Privates may talk strategy, but generals talk logistics," because, well, it's true. Even in a 190-person brigade staff, people definitely miss formations from time to time for myriad reasons. Maybe they're just missing the proper incentive structure.

Last week, a friend of mine who used to command a Company of Guardsmen was telling me about some problems he was having with his guys, who were habitually coming to monthly weekend drills with haircuts that were out of standard.

He and his First Sergeant had tried everything -- they tried using the platoon leaders to call their guys the week prior to the drills, they used e-mail reminders, they used threats of extra work details, etc. Nothing worked. From a mostly young, immature group of soldiers who seemed to be almost willfully breaking the rules, they heard about how the leaders were just being way too draconian -- they were ignoring the youth culture that seemed to inspire them to rebel against authority.

So what finally won?

The Captain and the 'first shirt' changed their soldiers' incentive structure. Here's how: At one Company formation, they announced a new policy -- From then on, any soldier who arrived at a weekend drill with an out-of-regs haircut would be sent back and not allowed to join the unit until he went to a barber and got things squared away...and the kicker was that because the soldier would not be with the group until the afternoon formation, he would miss half a day's pay.

The drill after that, there were still a couple soldiers who insisted on flouting their leaders. Sure enough, their bluff was called, and they really lost a big chunk of change (one day of drill pay is actually two days' worth of active pay...kind of confusing but you get the picture -- the stakes are real).

So after THAT, any guesses as to how many joes still arrived on Saturday looking like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo?


All the previous excuses, arguments, and protests went out the window...all of a sudden, once they were confronted with a consequence that trumped all of that, everyone got right with the program, and quickly.

Yes, there are myriad factors that motivate us to do, or not do, whatever we're tasked with, but don't ever underestimate the power of incentive!

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