“Reach for the stars. And if you ever get there, it means you didn’t reach high enough.”
Recently a client asked me about the cultural significance of “positive reinforcement” in America. In other words, what (if any) American values drive the popularity of this approach to developing employees, children, etc.?
I didn’t have a good answer. So I’m reaching out to my wise and esteemed readers for your take on the issue.
But first some background for context.
The reason the question was even asked is because Japanese and Americans who work together struggle with this issue: Americans like everything to be positive and happy (“Good job!”), while Japanese dwell on the empty part of the glass (“You must do better!”). To get your head around the Japanese approach, think of the young Zen pupil being whacked into enlightenment with the swing of the Master’s stick.
Needless to say the “whack-subordinates-over-the-head” motivation technique doesn’t fly with American employees. In extreme cases it leads to open conflict.
And here’s the problem: American employees who work for Japanese transplants often don’t understand that the very essence of the kaizen philosophy (“continuous improvement”) is negative in nature; it’s the ongoing, never-ending search for the next dragon to slay. (See Learning to Love Problems)
A Japanese executive once told me that patting people on the back was a waste of time because it didn’t help improve the person or organization. This particular manager was notorious for riding subordinates hard, especially the ones who showed the most potential.
So here’s my confusion. Based on the above criteria I can only conclude that my dad was Japanese! And so were my two older siblings, my elementary school nuns, my Pop Warner football coaches, the Jesuit priests who ran my high school, not to mention my Company Commander in boot camp.
What happened to MY positive reinforcement?
Then I started thinking. It wasn’t just me. All my childhood friends had the same kind of hard-ass dad–think Red Foreman on That Seventies Show:
Eric: Dad, why do bad things always happen to me?
Red: Because you’re a DUMBASS!
That’s how fathers talked to their sons back then. In dad’s mind it was his fatherly duty to toughen me up for the cruel world that lay ahead. (Only moms were allowed to be nurturing and positive.)
With this backdrop I’ll throw out my questions for discussion:
1) Is “positive reinforcement” an American (Western) phenomenon rooted in certain traditional values, for example rugged individualism, self-reliance, manifest destiny, etc.?
2) Or is it a recent phenomenon embraced by a new generation of Americans? For example, driven by the child-psychology movement in the 1970s?
3) Or something else entirely?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009