As a child I watched my grandmother unfold a square of margarine wrapped in tin foil, scrape the foil with a butter knife, and save the foil in a stack. She would also take the rubber bands off the newspapers and save them in a little box. These were the period effects of the Great Depression. Reality tutored her to value things based on an inconsistent and effort-filled pattern of obtaining things. As a consequence, perhaps, she would infrequently take me for an ice cream cone after we got the chores done. But that was the exception, which is why I treasured it.
Early in my career, I worked for a company that gave every employee a turkey at Thanksgiving time. It was a cherished, long-standing tradition. One year the economy turned down and the company cut the turkey benefit. Judging by the sputtering rage that some of the employees fell into, you would have thought they had been fired without cause. They protested what they saw as an unfair and unilateral decision by management, depriving them of something they were rightly entitled to.
This experience taught me an important leadership principle. It’s called the Two Turkey Rule. One turkey is a gift. Two turkeys are an entitlement. The rule acknowledges an unfortunate reality: That which is given consistently is expected consistently.
The Declaration of Independence states that we have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Please notice the language: Life and liberty are rights. Happiness is not. It’s the pursuit of happiness that is the right. Happiness is an opportunity, not a guaranteed outcome. The distinction is critical to understand if you’re a leader. As Rabbi Aryeh Spero recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, a person’s “well-being is not an entitlement.”
We tend to take things for granted if there’s a consistent or effortless pattern in obtaining them. The opposite is also true: When there’s an inconsistent or effort-filled pattern to obtaining something, we tend to value and be grateful for what we have more than we would.
The application of the Two Turkey Rule in leadership is to think through the long-term consequences of granting rewards, benefits or perquisites to employees. If you decide to provide a reward, assume that it will quickly move from the status of a privilege to the status of an entitlement. In fact, when you give a reward just two times, you will likely find that what you have given has assumed the status of an entitlement.
Here are some definitions to help: There are three different and yet related concepts — privileges, entitlements and rights. According to our common culture, an entitlement is more than a privilege and less than a right. It occupies the middle position. You can say that you deserve a turkey based on custom, tradition or precedent. But you can’t say you have a right to a turkey based on a moral principle. But even that logic won’t carry the day. When people want their turkey and there is no turkey, they are not interested in the moral reasoning. They simply want their turkey. I didn’t realize people could become so emotionally attached to frozen poultry.
In another organization, I witnessed a manager buy lunch for his team two Fridays in a row. The next Friday, his workers were lined up outside his door at noon, waiting expectantly for the new benefit. The behavioral conditioning took just two events.
My advice: Recognize that you are building culture. Think with acuity toward the long-term consequences of what you are doing. If you are committed to providing a permanent reward, go ahead and establish a consistent pattern in providing the reward. In all other cases, grant rewards based on merit, avoiding a routine pattern of giving and the consequent entitlement it will likely create. If you give a reward, make the expectation clear that it’s not an entitlement.
In rewarding employees, we often damage morale in the very act of trying to improve it. We give rewards and then face that mournful day when we have to take them away. We fail to think through the pain and consequences of dislodging what has become an entrenched entitlement.
Remember that a rich simpatico with your employees is not achieved through rewards anyway. It’s achieved through rich, collaborative, meaningful work. Remember the Two Turkey Rule.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and leadership development organization. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.