Rewarding The Wrong Behavior

Sharp End podcast - Rewarding the wrong behavior

It may sound odd but I enjoy listening to the Sharp End podcast. Guests on the show talk about accidents they’ve experienced in the outdoors, mostly climbing, and backcountry skiing related. In a sport where your life depends on doing things correctly, I find it helpful to learn from events when things didn’t go well. Maybe the learning will come in handy for me one day.

The latest episode describes the adventures and learning from climber Michael Habicht’s attempted climb of Ama Dablam in Nepal. Most incidents arise from climbers forgetting to do things or following risky practices. This episode was different. Michael is a very experienced climber and he did most things right. In fact I wouldn’t say the biggest issue which put a fellow climber’s life in extreme danger was climbing related. It was a failure of leadership.

A fateful decision

Michael had planned to climb solo but decided to join a small group of four climbers who were being guided up the mountain. It would be wise to have someone else around if something went wrong. The trade off was speed. Travelling in a group is usually slower, the pace dictated by the slowest climber. After Michael’s first day with them, he noted the climbers skills varied considerably. Two lacked basic skills but each had a guide, so he figured it would be ok.

What he didn’t know would have changed his opinion. Each guide was promised a bonus of $1,000 if their client reached the summit. This is as much as many people in Nepal earn in a year. On the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable reward for the experience of a lifetime. But it almost led to one or more deaths. Missing out on the bonus was unthinkable. The guides did everything possible to get their clients to the summit, including carrying them. But this behavior slowed everything down, with climbing taking three times as long.

Putting lives at risk

As others in the group had to wait for these two unskilled climbers, they were exposed to bone chilling temperatures and high winds. This led to hypothermia and one climber’s inability to use their hands, necessitating a rescue. This occurred because the judgement of the group’s guides was biased by the prize. Of course they could make it up to the summit. Well, it turns out none of them did but fortunately nobody died. Check out the episode if you want to learn more.

Rewarding the wrong behavior

So why am I writing about this? As leaders, we have the opportunity to incentivize the wrong behavior everyday. Providing individual recognition instead of rewarding the team. Rewarding the diving catch when the problem should never have occurred in the first place. And not recognizing the learning from a failure, amongst many others.

What behavior are you rewarding and what is that motivating the people around you to do?