Humans are hard-wired learning machines. We learn from every single situation that we encounter. We learn through reinforcement of a behaviour and we learn by receiving either rewards or punishments after a behaviour. We learn in every type of situation.
But sometimes we learn the wrong lesson by changing our methods for all of the right reasons. Recently the school board of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador announced that children would not longer be failed if they were caught cheating. They would be given another chance to write the test without cheating. The pedagogical geniuses who came up with this approach argue that by allowing students to write the test, we can then separate the behaviour of cheating from the assessment of what the student knows.
The problem is that students are cheating because they don’t know the material, and don’t want to bother learning it. All this new policy does is reinforce students’ beliefs that cheating isn’t wrong. This is bad news for many of our institutions that rely upon integrity, such as pension funds, banks, construction, medicine. Essentially every profession relies on its members to be honest, without having to actively police them.
Unintended messages are everywhere. Universities in Ontario are required by law to provide accommodation to those with learning disabilities. Sounds like universities are evening the playing field, right? Perhaps. It turns out that this accommodation doesn’t actually help students with disabilities. I often have students who require 50% more time to complete tests and exams. A three-hour exam turns into a four-hour thirty minute exam for these students. The student graduates with exactly the same degree as a student who has not received accommodation. An employer will expect the same performance from each student. There is no way that an accommodated student can meet these expectations, they have been trained to expect 50% more time to accomplish goals. Career mayhem ensues.The university has now let down both student and employer.
Every organization has policies or procedures that create unintended negative consequences. If the benefits out-weigh the consequences, then by all means, implement the policies. But many times management isn’t even aware of the potential negative consequences of their policies. What are the potential negative consequences of your policies that you haven’t considered? Perhaps that is a good question for your next management team meeting.