Green Beans and Ice Cream
By Patti Wysocki
At the recent AGC convention, Bill Sims presented a session on the subject of his book, “Green Beans & Ice Cream: The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement.”
You might be asking yourself what green beans and ice cream have to do with positive reinforcement. Or for that matter, what does it have to do with construction. Bill Simms describes his childhood dinner experiences in the beginning of the book. His mother would feed him green beans and they were his worse nightmare. “Green. Slimy. Stringy.” As he says, “by the time I was a four-year-old kid, I had already sampled green beans and concluded they weren’t for me. The strings might as well have been wood chips, the way they caught in my throat as I tried to get them down. Mom was my boss, and I was her newest employee. We had a real labor/management crisis going on. She begged, cajoled and pleaded. But I was determined not to eat those green beans. So I crossed my arms, frowned and pouted, figuring she’d give up and forget about green beans, as she always had in the past.”
“But this time, Mom had a secret weapon. Now, there was something else on the table besides that dreaded green scourge. You guessed it. Ice cream! This sheer stroke of maternal genius changed my behavior forever. In a flash, I saw those green beans, not as an oppressive burden, but as a first-class ticket to that lovely ice cream.”
In his 1959 book, “The Motivation to Work,” Dr. Frederick Herzberg explained that the two greatest drivers of employee satisfaction are recognition and achievement, while money ranks a distant sixth place as a satisfier. However, unfair pay erodes trust in leadership and decreases performance. In 1996, Bob Nelson conducted a number of surveys to discover that the most powerful driver of employee satisfaction and engagement isn’t money; it is positive reinforcement. Sadly, more than 68% of all workers have never heard the words “Thank you” from their bosses. Why is this?
Some bosses question why they should thank their employees for doing the job they are paid to do. Some companies go a step further and say to never positively recognize employees in writing since they could use this against the company if they are fired.
Throughout the book, Sims presents different stories and examples of how important positive reinforcement is.
One story he shares is about a construction site. A new manager was struggling to get her 300 highway-construction workers to comply with a new company safety rule: wearing a hard hat at all times. She had yelled and screamed trying to get compliance with the new rule, but nobody was taking her seriously.
Sims suggested giving positive reinforcement a try and sent her a care package that consisted of a big cooler chest that he felt any construction worker would appreciate. The next day she showed up unexpectedly at a construction site and singled out the only worker who was demonstrating the desired behavior.
Of the 17 guys on the project, only the newest employee was wearing a hard hat. The manager walked over to the new employee in front of everyone, while she ignored those who were not wearing their protective gear. She publicly thanked him for wearing his hard hat, telling him that she really appreciated his taking safety seriously. She followed by saying that she sometimes lays awake at night worried that one of her workers won’t go home to their family safely, and thanked the new worker for following the new safety rule as she handed him the gift.
As the 16 rough, weathered construction workers watched, the manager presented the cooler chest to the new employee. He thanked his manager saying that he’d never won anything in his life and that no one had ever told him he did something right.
Now the 16 other construction workers wanted to know where their cooler chest was. The manager’s response was, “Well guys, where are your hard hats? Maybe during my next safety audit, if I see you with your hard hats on, then we’ll talk about cooler chests.”
The impact on the other employees was immediate and powerful. On the next trip to the site, the manager was greeted by the entire crew smiling at her and pointing at their hard hats. Each was presented with a cooler chest and sincere positive feedback.
In summary, Sims recommends that you put his mother’s lesson about green beans and ice cream to work for you. “First, you have to pinpoint the behaviors you want, and positively reinforce them immediately when you see them.”
“Decide what you want people to do. Focus on the behaviors that drive the results you need. Positive reinforcement is the most powerful factor in sustaining high performance. The vast majority of today’s workers will tell you that they have never heard a “thank you” from their leadership team. Find specific things to reinforce positively every day in the actions of people with whom you live and work. Make sure your positives outweigh the negatives.”
ConstructionPro Network would like to hear how you feel about the concept of positive reinforcement and would like you to share any experiences you have had.