The Sticker-chart Generation

By December 20, 2012Business

My Godson fixes me with a beady eye. “If I finish my peas, do I get a sticker?” I was on holiday, taking the twins on a Progress to meet their northern relatives, and visiting friends en route. Every fridge I saw boasted a sticker-chart, and every meal seemed to go the same way, coupled with endless negotiation about getting dressed, sharing toys, doing jobs, and behaving in general. The more enterprising children would have shocked Luther with their creativity in conjuring up fresh sticker opportunities. They reminded me of those cartoon Catholics of yore, who played the system by figuring out that sinning generates more God points than leading a blameless life, because it enables you to get grace top-ups through confession and absolution.

Maybe I have been in the trade for too long, but doing deals over broccoli also reminded me of some of the coaching sessions I have had with senior leaders. They, too, are ruled by the executive equivalent of the sticker-chart, and are increasingly loath to do anything that hasn’t been pre-negotiated to deliver a specific reward. Management theory positions this as ‘transactional leadership‘, in order to recommend in contrast ‘transformational leadership‘. Like so many trite theories, this entirely misses the point. I’ve written elsewhere about the worrying zeitgeist of materialism, and our over-dependence on scepticism as the narrative of choice. The point is that the sticker-chart generation shows the complete failure of our attempt as a society to inculcate moral character.

Perhaps it could be argued that the culture of business lends itself to sticker-chart protocols. They have certainly become de rigeur since performance management was introduced in the 1970s. But it is frankly terrifying that this approach seems to have worked its way back, through the education system via marking schemes and SATs, into our kitchens. Parents up and down the land routinely get hoodwinked into buying lego and build-a-bear accessories, by children whose first lesson in life seems to be how to manipulate the local reward system.

It is fashionable to obsess about Gen Y, and they may well be the first sticker-chart generation. They certainly seem to have a transactional approach towards employment. Ashridge research shows that their top three priorities are challenging/interesting work, a high salary, and advancing their career. Money usually comes much lower in this list in more general workplace polls, and almost half of the Gen Y-ers polled said that their salary was below their expectations. 57% expect to leave their employer within two years.

Why does this matter? Formally, it is about understanding the merits of intrinsic rewards – things that are good to do in and of themselves, not for the good they will bring you instrumentally. The classic Enlightenment ethic of utilitarianism sits well with extrinsic reward/punishment strategies, as it is all about calculating the good that would arise from a given course of action. This is the ethic of choice in the modern marketplace. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, is about the development of the right character through moral practice, and doing good simply to be good. I suppose children have always been mercenary, but we are certainly institutionalising the process through the ubiquity of the sticker-chart

Informally, and for the world of work, this matters because it is about discretionary effort. In the field of Organisational Citizenship, discretionary effort is calculated as the positive difference between what an employee is contractually obliged to do, and the job they actually perform. All the extras like attention to detail, good communication, proactive innovation, loyalty – everything that marks out your dream employee from a jobsworth – are actually legally unenforceable, but have always been assumed in the accompanying psychological contract. That a field called Organisational Citizenship is currently in vogue shows that we are already in trouble, especially as the theory tends to lag practice by several years

But if our children learn not to move a muscle unless there is a sticker in the offing, what kind of a Gen Z workforce are we generating? We can’t put them all on an organisational naughty step if they are doing exactly what we have trained them to do. Learning to rely primarily on extrinsic motivation depletes will-power and the ability to self-motivate, and makes our children perpetually dependent on other people’s reward systems. This makes them all the more dependent on others for their happiness. Great news for the ‘self-help’ industry, but bad news for Gen Z.

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