This article was published in my e-book, Leadership for New Managers, 2012. It also published in the Association for Facility Engineering in the May/June 2003 issue under the title, “A Coach with Candy Taught a Lasting Lesson in Motivation”. It was originally published as my letter to the editor of Infantry Magazine in the January/February 1989 issue. Have I dated myself? I have updated it and revised it somewhat. The lessons learned are still true today.
Let me first share this story with you and then I will explain the principles involved.
In 1973, I attended Indiana University to get my master’s degree. One of the courses I took was taught by Dr. Counsilman (Doc), possibly the best swimming coach in the Big 10 Conference. He had coached such notables as Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics and two gold, one silver and one bronze metal in the 1968 Olympics. Doc’s Ph.D. was in psychology, and the class he taught was on motivating athletes. One day, I commented to Doc that it must be satisfying to take young swimmers from high school and teach them to be great swimmers. He said he did not do that, but rather, he recruited great swimmers, and there was not much he could teach them. His reply surprised me and I asked how he managed to consistently have one of the best swimming teams in the nation. “Through motivation”, he said.
Doc would buy gummy (or gummi) bears (the tiny German candies made in the shape of teddy bears) by the case and always carried a bag of them during swimming practice. Anytime a swimmer performed well in practice, he would immediately be rewarded with a gummy bear. More often than not, Doc would challenge a swimmer. For example, if the swimmer could do the next lap one-tenth of a second faster, Doc would give that swimmer a gummy bear. He rewarded the swimmer immediately in front of his peers so that everyone would take notice. At the end of the practice, Doc would reward everyone by throwing the bears into the pool. The scene was similar to a shark feeding frenzy. The swimmers would swear that Doc’s gummy bears tasted better than those they could buy in a store. It may seem too simple, but it worked. Everyone likes to be a winner at some time or another and successful managers look for opportunities to make their employees winners; even if they have to create the situation. The more people are made to feel like winners, the more people want to win.
Doc’s Gummy Bear Leadership worked on several principles:
Doc recruited good swimmers.
He rewarded good performance.
The reward was immediate – not after practice, the next day, or the next week.
The reward was presented in front of peers.
The coach never delegated the presentation of the reward to the assistant coach, the manager, or his deputy.
Doc challenged each individual to perform better.
In the end, he rewarded everyone as a group.
It is not the value of the reward that is important but the recognition of a job well done.
Recruit good people. Doctor Counsilman's gummy bear leadership would not have been effective if he had to spend most of his time teaching his swimmers how to swim. It is difficult to motivate an employee to do something which he or she has not been trained to do or does not have the knowledge to do. Try to recruit talented people who can do the job. Employees who want to do a good job but do not know how to do a good job get frustrated. In most cases, you will have to train your staff to do the job well. Once properly trained, they are more easily motivated.
Reward good performance. Everyone wants to be appreciated for his or her good work even if it is just with a "Thank you". Rewarding good performance reinforces that behavior and encourages a continuation of it. Recognition satisfies a basis human need.
Reward on the spot. Immediate rewards are the most effective. Watch any sporting event and you will see that the winners are rewarded upon winning, not later. Besides, if you do not do it immediately, you might postpone it indefinitely, and it will not be done.
Reward in front of peers. It is human nature that we all want to be part of a team, but at the same time would like to stand out from the crowd. Everyone wants their peers to admire them for the work they do.
Present the reward yourself. By this simple act, you are making a statement. You are saying that you recognize the outstanding performance of your employee and the contribution he or she has made. This is too important to be delegated. If it is not from you, the employee will be confused about who is rewarding him or her. The employee must know that you know.
Challenged each employee to perform better. Often, the challenge itself is a prime motivator. If you continue to reward the same level of performance, you will not see any improvement.
Reward the group. Always remember that your department is a team, and exceptional performance is a team effort. No one person can carry the team by himself or herself. When a football team wins the Super Bowl, every player gets a championship ring.
It is not the value of the reward. Money is not the only motivator and sometimes not the best motivator. Doctor Counsilman proved this with his gummy bears. It is the recognition of a job well done presented by the leader, on the spot, in front of peers that makes the reward important, not the cost. Napoleon invented the ribbons that soldiers still wear on their uniforms for heroic deeds. He once said that if he had enough ribbon, he could conquer the world. I have seen many facilities that have put these principles into practice. They use "Atta Boy" notes, coins, or other small tokens to recognize good performance. It really works.
Now that you know the principles, try them and find out what some other facilities have learned about motivation.