As anyone who has motivated a team into success knows, effective management tactics must incorporate both praise and criticism. For many small business owners who work closely with their team, striking a balance between friend and boss, colleague and authoritarian can be a difficult task.
For some, a soft approach based on compassion and flexibility alone can lead to a lack of respect, while others who rule with an iron fist find that their staff are quick to jump boats when the opportunity arises. The key to successful motivation, discipline and positive reinforcement is to play both the good cop and the bad cop. Keep in mind, however, that while this can be an effective technique, when used too extremely it can have the reverse effect on your team.
Psychological contrast effect
Whenever we experience a stimulus, our nervous system evaluates it based on our previous state - it compares it to what we experienced before it and makes a judgement.
Interestingly, the same stimulus can elicit a different degree of response based on what was happening before it. Take the example of an air-conditioned room. Outside its sweltering and you walk into a cool 22 degree room. The same cool room, however, feels warm when we come in from a cold winter's day. The temperature is the same, but the way we perceive it is based on the contrasting temperature we experienced before it.
Good cop / bad cop technique in business
The good cop / bad cop technique is based on this principle, making the positives seem more positive and the negatives more negative. In business, however, we need to consider the long-term implication and effectiveness of this technique. So unlike an episode of Law and Order, a confession, or in the case of business: compliance, performance or change in the short term, is not sufficient. Instead, this technique can be used as a way of solidifying those things that you cannot overlook within the business as well as giving added meaning to those times when praise is called for.
Balance is everything
Effective use of the good cop / bad cop technique in business means knowing how to balance the two and also knowing in which circumstances to use them.
We don't want our employee's reaction to our praise or criticism to be based on something extreme and unexpected. Instead, outline the things you will not tolerate before they occur. This way you can be firm and direct without completely blindsiding the person in question. The reason for this is that while using the good cop / bad cop technique can be an effective tool for motivation, when used too extremely it can lead to a very uncomfortable working environment, leaving employees feeling on edge about how you may react to something.
Set a precedent
Use the bad cop in small doses before problems get out of hand. Letting things slide and eventually exploding will not only leave your team confused, but can also portray you as overreactive. Keep in mind that in business the bad cop should be solely about the business and the tasks at hand. Sarcasm, rudeness or inappropriate comments should never be used, even if you feel they may be effective.
Likewise, give praise and positive reinforcement when it is due rather than as a constant reaction to simple tasks that should be carried out efficiently as a minimum. Too much praise will leave staff wondering if you are sincere and will also make those really outstanding moments seem like just another pat on the back.
Used in moderation, the good cop / bad cop technique can be a useful addition to your repertoire of management tactics. Rather than playing two contrasting roles, however, aim to find a stable and predictable middle ground where your team will feel comfortable, and keep those more extreme reactions for times where they are really needed.
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This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Nick Petrovic is a registered psychologist and head of clinic at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic and has more than 10 years' experience in the allied health and business. Nick has contributed to regular columns in more than a dozen business magazines and newspapers, advising on issues such as mental health, work related stress, strategic planning, business analysis and human resources.