Supervisory Leadership

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The Mark Twain Hot Stove Rule

Mark Twain said a lot of funny and insightful things. One of them was: “A cat who sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again. But he won’t sit on a cold stove, either.”

That cat sitting on the hot stove got what we call a negative consequence. A negative consequence is an uncomfortable or unwanted result that follows a behavior.

The cat learned, painfully, that sitting on a hot stove was a bad idea. But, was that all that the cat learned? Cats are pretty simplistic. The lesson more likely was that sitting on a stove causes pain.

Human beings aren’t really much different from cats when it comes to negative consequences. Negative consequences, like punishment or pain or discomfort or embarrassment, get us to stop doing something.

The danger is that if you use too many of them those negative consequences will get us to stop trying altogether. Since part of your job as a boss is to deliver consequences, you need to know how to do that effectively.

You should deliver negative consequences consistently. That’s how they work best. If you talk to a subordinate and tell that subordinate that if he or she continues to do “x,” then “a” will happen, “a” had better happen if they do “x”.

One of my friends once said, “Consequences should be as inevitable as nature.” He would have been more accurate if he said, “Negative consequences should be as inevitable as nature.” Negative consequences work if they are delivered consistently as promised.

That’s because negative consequences, like pain for our cat friend, are the tool you use to get people to stop doing things. But you have to mix those negatives in with some positive or your people will stop trying anything.

Positive consequences are good, welcome or pleasant results of behavior. Positive consequences are best when they’re delivered inconsistently.

But don’t let that stop you from looking for things to praise and reward. Most of us came up with role models who over-used negative consequences and kept the positives in reserve. The result is that we learned from their example and most of us don’t praise our people enough.

Remember that you don’t have to wait for perfect behavior or performance to praise. You can praise progress, you can praise small wins, you can praise effort. And you should look for opportunities to do that.

One way to mix positive and negative consequences with folks who work for you is to do something the psychologists call “Negative Reinforcement.” That’s a negative consequence that continues until behavior or performance is positive.

Let’s say you’ve got someone who works for you who’s supposed to send you reports. But the reports you get are incomplete and often late.

Set up a review process. When you get a report, you’ll go over the report with your subordinate. You’ll point out what’s wrong and send the report back to be re-done. Tell your subordinate that the review process will go on until you start getting satisfactory reports.

The negative consequences include having to meet with you for review, having mistakes pointed out in detail and having to re-do the report. All those are negative consequences.

They’ll probably get your subordinate to stop doing some things you don’t like. But, if that’s all you deliver, you may get progress but you won’t get willing compliance or a subordinate who’s willing to keep trying things.

So make sure that you praise progress, even little bits of it, when you meet for a review session. Make sure you point out the things that are good. It’s good teaching and good motivation as well.

Mark Twain had it right about negative consequences, but that’s not the whole story. You’ll be a more effective boss if you deliver your negative consequences consistently to get folks to stop doing things. Use praise and other positive consequences to get folks to continue trying and developing and to encourage them to try new things.


Here are two other items on this site that deal with this issue.


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