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July 25, 2006 > A gold star

A gold star

Positive reinforcement is a powerful behavioral tool. Negative reinforcement works too. Although there can be healthy debates over which serves best, it is often obvious that when actions are without consequence, resulting behavior may be far from desirable. Most of us can remember times at a store when a child misbehaves and makes life miserable for not only the caretaker, but everyone else as well. Sometimes the behavior is understandable - fatigue, illness, etc. - while at other times it appears that not only does the child act irresponsibly, but the caregiver does as well. In the absence of discipline, behavior often grows erratic and increasingly counterproductive.

I know that I am treading on thin ice since in the absence of a doctorate in Psychology, these notes are purely from personal observation and experience. However, absent all the exceptions to the rule and conflicting scientific studies, I remember the early years of school when gold stars earned for good deeds and work were coveted by all the kids. There were clearly defined rules that governed the issuance of these shiny marks of excellence and we knew that they were earned recognition of something done right. Enough positive paths were created so all could enjoy the pride and sense of accomplishment that came with the award.

As all of us grow older, some of these rules of conduct become internal without gold stars, but in many cases, the rewards are still there in practical ways: money, promotions, recognition, family harmony, etc. There are those who exist well in a highly structured environment - corporations, government or nonprofit - finding paths to acceptance and advancement. When this is well earned, there is no argument. However, what happens when an organization relies on the good will and works of a staff tasked with particular responsibilities and functions. Where does acknowledgement of a job well done end and at what point are gold stars handed out? Is simply fulfilling the requirements of a position cause for unrestrained enthusiasm? If so, how is the extraordinary recognized and rewarded? Sometimes, watching city council meetings, council congratulations of staff presentations become almost fawning, far in excess of the deed. I am sure those involved appreciate a pat on the back, but when superlatives rule, little room is left for higher praise.

By the same token, what is done when staff actions not only do not satisfy minimum standards but result in financial waste, loss of time and energy and are proven to be erroneous to the extreme? A case to be considered is the continuing saga of the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA) and their grudging withdrawal from the Sunol recycling site. Cloaked in clouds of CYA (cover your a_ _) terminology, the actions and results of staff are at least suspect, if not unethical and possibly illegal. When this type of behavior is uncovered and millions of dollars are wasted, where are the consequences or at least a public explanation?

The Sunol site was finally put to rest at the last board meeting of the ACWMA, but there remain many questions about tactics, motives and actions of highly placed staff members. A recent vote to formally cease pursuit of the facility on Andrade Road in Sunol was couched by some board members in terminology that placed blame on the County Board of Supervisors for their denial of the project. Instead of introspection, accusations are being thrust outward. This is not a new tactic. Look around at world leadership past and present. Close inspection of repressive regimes often reveals approval, fostering and furthering hatred of those outside national, ethnic or religious boundaries. These folks know that the best way to defend against internal criticism is to find an external, easily identifiable villain. This has worked well for centuries and continues to this day. This same tactic and obfuscation is alive and well even at the local level. Should the taxpayers expect action to clean house at the ACWMA? I think so.

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