Defensive Strategy

Motivation, President Obama and BP

18 Jun 2010  

People aren’t motivated by insults.

Criticizing someone feels good, but it isn’t likely to result in a behavior change. This is why companies selling weight loss products don’t go around pointing fingers, “Hey, you there. You really do look fat. Put the donut down now.” It is also why people in the fashion industry focus on the great new look, not making fun of people wearing the old style.

I see this with students all the time. If I spend a lot of time explaining all the reasons why a paper isn’t perfect, students tend to tune me out. Sometimes they just get mad at me. If I highlight some of the positives, however, or focus on ways to make things better, they often pay attention and make improvements.

Most people like to believe they are on the right track and are looking for ways to be better.

So I’m not sure why President Obama has decided the best way to deal with the oil spill is to attack BP. This week he said something like this: “You folks at BP are either totally incompetent or criminals. You deserve to be punished, and I am personally going to lock you away for a long time. And Tony, Mr. CEO, you are the worst of the bunch. You have a bad haircut, too.”

This approach might be right if the problem was fixed and the only issues were working through the cleanup and determining the liability. But that is not the situation at all; the leak continues with no end in sight.

It appears that the people who will fix this leak all work for BP, which means we need the BP team to do great work. Declaring them incompetent and lazy will not make them work harder or inspire them to come up with new ideas. At the moment we should look for ways to support the people fixing the leak, not criticize them.

I had a leak in my basement the other day; a repair to one part of the plumbing system apparently caused a leak somewhere else. When the plumber arrived, I didn’t immediately attack him, shouting with indignation:   “This is an outrage. You are totally incompetent. I am going to hold you personally responsible for this. I am going to kick someone’s a__.” Instead, I thanked him for coming quickly, asked if he needed anything and then got out of his way.

Perhaps our leaders in Washington should spend a bit more time working with BP to stop the leak and a bit less time ranting and raving about the company’s incompetence.

2 Responses

  1. scott orn says:

    Fanmail from an Alum: I love your blog.

  2. pll says:

    I don’t buy the analogy. Unlike you interaction with a plumber, the administration does not make a public statement with an audience of BP employees in mind, but as proxy for people affected by the oil spill. Also, the extreme focus on positive comments is uniquely American — BP is a European company. They’ll be able to cope with negative comments. Finally, when a company is being accused of negligence and it agrees to move funds to an escrow account (which will safeguard those funds in case it goes bankrupt), one can only suspect that the allegations are founded. Even in the US, at some point abject failure cannot be sugar-coated.

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