I have had a lot of coaches over my life. Sometimes it was a traditional coach as in sports and sometimes it took the form of a boss or mentor that worked to help me improve.
In middle school and high school I played football. I was small for my age but still played outside linebacker throughout most of my football career. I remember, in eighth grade, one specific example of the coach’s influence on me on the field. There were certain defensive packages where I had to contain the edge of the formation. In other words I was to make sure nobody go around me where we didn’t have defenders. One week we were playing a team that used a quarterback bootleg to trick the outside linebacker and ultimately get outside to get a huge gain.
All week the coaches explained what to look for and that anytime we saw a particular play developing we were to play it safe and make sure the quarterback didn’t keep the ball and try to get the edge. We practiced it over and over again and by the end of the week it was ingrained in my head that my responsibility was to contain. The game went off without a hitch. I kept contain and never let the quarterback outside.
But other coaches have also influenced me in a positive way. When I was in a retail sales position in high school, we had to role-play and practice providing excellent customer service and selling a pair of shoes and accessories. We would run through examples and it forced us to practice the techniques that we were told about. After a while it was ingrained in the way we approached a customer and helped them find what they were looking for.
In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he talks about a time when he was speaking to flight instructors in the Isreali Air Force. He was explaining the value of positive reinforcement over punishment as a way to improve performance. When he was finished, an experienced trainer got up and gave his opinion, which was exactly the opposite of what Kahneman argued.
The instructor explained that often times a cadet would perform exceptionally well and be praised, but this often led to poor performance the next time. He also said if he yelled at someone with a poor performance they would likely do better the next time.
But Kahneman is an experienced statistician. He said “This was a joyous moment of insight, when I saw in a new light a principle of statistics that I had been teaching for years. The instructor was right – but he was also completely wrong! His observation was astute and correct: occasions on which he praised a performance were likely to be followed by a disappointing performance, and punishments were typically followed by an improvement. But the inference he had drawn about the efficacy of reward and punishment was completely off the mark. What he had observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he praised only a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But he cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into a cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process.”
To me this is incredible. This means that the argument over punishment or reward is often the wrong argument all together. What we should be looking at is how can we improve over time. In other words, how do we take our mean (average) performance and improve that over time. Not simply focus on the times we fall far outside of the mean and apply praise or correction then.
In my sales training I remember this exact situation playing out. Management set goals and would praise and punish sales people who made or missed their goals. But the best sales managers actually went beyond this. They took the time to teach a sales process that would help increase the average result from a sales person. Then they could teach the sales person and help them slowly improve.
I always referred to this as coaching someone up. By providing insight and specific steps to improve over the long term we can start to improve our average performance which will inevitably include some times when we perform far above and far below that average. The sales managers who just looked at weekly goals thought it was all about effort without any regard to actually technique, routine, or abilities.
The key to improving average performance is through knowledge and habits. We have to learn better ways to do things. Then we have to be able to put in place the right habits so that we rely on better tactics to reach goals.
I am also finding that this relates to parenting in a lot of ways. I’m still in the early years of being a parent but I already see that praise or punishment itself isn’t as effective as I assumed it would be prior to becoming a parent. Instead it seems like I need to help her understand the causation and help her build the right habits. The goal of parenting is to eventually instill the right habits and values so that they can make decisions by themselves, rather than having you always there to tell them how to behave.
Punishment and rewards have been well researched. There is evidence that both can be effective. But remember to focus on improvement and improving the average performance through habit rather than confusing statistical randomness and regression to the mean as improved performance. And with all improvement, focus on learning and building new positive habits to reach a goal.