Do You Perform Better with a Stick?


Do you make better choices when you feel forced to do as you are told? Probably not.

It started in 2007, when Clarion Health (Indianapolis) and Scotts (Ohio) began charging employees for unhealthy habits, particularly smoking. Macy’s is the latest to start doing the same, along with PepsiCo, Union Pacific and Gannett. This isn’t just controversial or potentially illegal; it is the worst way to get people to change how they take care of themselves. While on the one hand it does cost less to employ people that choose healthier lifestyles than those that don’t. On the other hand attempting to force these folks to change is going to cost them good employees and morale.

Consider being an employee that is now singled out for not being healthy enough or who makes choices that aren’t always best. You are now in the spot light and more closely scrutinized by your managers and peers. Each time you make an unhealthy choice you will be judged, and when your test results prove that you haven’t succeeded in reducing cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other levels you could be financially penalized. You might think this will help and this is a good thing, but what if it were really you?

Are you the type to go along and easily make changes under this kind of pressure and force? Some people are and for them it will work. It may be the one thing that will finally get them on board. But they are the tiny minority. Most people don’t conform so easily when bullied. They may go along at first to keep the peace, but they won’t like it and will soon argue against it. They will cite their right to privacy or claim discrimination, and these are good arguments. But there is something else going on beneath the surface: it is our human nature to rebel against force and want to do what we’re told not to do even more.

This is true whether being forced to change by an employer or by someone close to home – say your spouse, family, doctor or even a robot. And yes I said robot. A few years ago, a Massachusetts based company built some robots to monitor people in their own homes to ensure they ate correctly. The robots had a way of knowing when a person had been good or bad and tracked their progress. Can you imagine coming home one day and finding out you have to live with that? Fortunately there wasn’t enough funding to bring it to market. Let’s hope the idea never gets resurrected.

The better approach is to have a good reason to care about your own health and then be motivated to make changes for yourself on your terms. Many companies now offer health screenings that reveal your risk for disease. If you discover you are at great risk, this can be a powerful wake-up call that gives you the resolve you need to make a change in your habits. When this happens, you are the one that wants to be healthier. You are the one ready to commit to new routines and choices, and you will feel motivated to take action.

This is a great start, but success takes more than resolve. It is too easy to be thrown off course when life gets in the way of meeting your goals. And life always gets in the way. If you’ve chosen to do a diet, work with a trainer or join a company program that focuses on how good or bad you are in following through and makes it unpleasant, you may get too discouraged to stick with it. The worst thing is to feel that you can’t succeed, something is wrong with you or you just can’t measure up to expectations. If that is reinforced, you will give up believing you can do it and it may be years before you find the resolve to try again.

If instead you chose a healthier way of eating and exercising that suits your preferences (in or out of a gym), allows you to start off slowly, acknowledges small successes, withholds judgment and works with you to set realistic goals and overcome challenges, you would become excited and motivated by how good it feels and how proud you are of your accomplishments. You wouldn’t feel forced; you would feel pumped.

Threats and penalties don’t encourage better behavior over the long term; they instill hatred toward healthier habits and a deeper sense of failure and unworthiness. People can use the carrot and stick to enforce behaviors, but there is greater success and morale when those are replaced with baby carrots, apple slices and a reassuring nudge. How can you pump yourself up about healthier changes with positive reinforcement?