Everything I Need to Know I Learned from George Carlin

A Six Minute Read

Got into an argument this morning with my Rice Krispies. I distinctly heard- “Snap, Crackle, [Screw] Him”. I don’t know which one of them said it… But I told them, I said, “Well, you can all just sit right there in the milk. Far as I’m concerned you can sit in the milk until I find out which one of you said that.”

A little mass punishment for my breakfast food. The idea is to turn them against one another.

“Just sit in the milk!”

Of course, dopey me: big punishment! That’s what they do anyway. That’s their job. Sitting in the milk.

Audio Not Safe for Work…

Managers spend a lot of time discussing “how to motivate” employees  – and grumbling about those who “just aren’t motivated”. That’s an intellectually lazy label: being “unmotivated” is not a cause of workplace issues, but rather a symptom.

Since we’re incapable of reading employees’ thoughts, we don’t know if they really are “motivated”, we only know what we see. When we judge someone’s “motivation”, it is really our subjective assessment of the urgency, enthusiasm, care, and initiative we perceive in his actions. Since we’re incapable of changing employee’s thoughts, we can only influence their behavior.

Getting the behavior we want – that is, “being motivational” – is the manager’s responsibility, after all.

I’m not a trained psychotherapist, but I am a certified Man of Action. I can speak (inelegantly) about a few things in the Human Condition.

The Why You Do the Things You Do

Outside of genuinely altruistic behavior, most people take the path of least resistance.

“Loss Aversion” is well-documented – people generally take greater risks to avoid losing something than to achieve an equal gain. At work, it’s “Pain Aversion” –like flowing water, we tend to find the least-resistant path. We spend more effort minimizing anxiety, fear, or discomfort (physical, emotional, intellectual) than chasing gains.

As leaders, this means we need to remove the barriers that make the “right thing” the more difficult, painful thing.

What’s so damn difficult is, everyone interprets pain differently (and has different tolerances). So where one person appears to be more motivated than another, she is actually adapting, navigating obstacles, and enduring her surroundings differently.

When taking a systemic approach – either to understand performance, or to create an environment that breeds success – I find it helpful to look at two variables: Rewards and Behavior.


By “Reward”, I don’t mean money. “Rewards”, in this sense, represent what an employee values, what provides her with a sense of security and comfort. Think of the “Rewards” variable as a scale sliding from excruciating pain (anguish, confusion) to overwhelming peace. “Rewards” provide either fuel or friction for getting shit done.

A Reward system is consistently applied across a workforce, but the perceived value – the “variability” of the variable – is assessed on an employee-by-employee basis. (Kind of like the Scofield scale objectively measures the heat of chili peppers, but everyone’s tolerance for that heat varies.).

For one person, a chance to speak in front of her colleagues could be seen as a tremendous reward and fuel good work; to another, it could feel like punishment and grind their efforts to a halt. A preferred parking spot may make one person feel special, while his colleague might not appreciate having his car front-and-center in the lot.

Rewards Perception can change over time; what was once acceptable can become intolerable, and vice versa. And it can vary based on what an employee is expecting: Whereas you or I might take umbrage if we were thrown in a vat of milk and left to contemplate our inevitable doom, for a Rice Krispie, that’s just another day at the office.


At a very high level, the “Behavior” variable is the pinpointed description of what an employee is doing. This should be as objective and judgment-free as possible: Describe the actions, not your interpretation. What would appear in a silent film? If you were a director trying to describe what you wanted to see onstage, what would that be? That’s “Behavior”.

Bringing Them Together

You can use these variables to either map out a current environment, or chart an optimal one.

Think about the ideal Behavior you’d like to see. Remember to pinpoint!

Think about the most reasonably unacceptable Behavior you’d like to avoid.

In a perfect world, we would chart each employee as an individual (in reality, we might paint with broad strokes); so, brainstorm:

  • What Rewards encourage that person to engage in the ideal and acceptable behavior(s)? What will provide the fuel for their fire?
  • What Rewards discourage that person to engage in the ideal and acceptable behavior(s)? What friction will slow them down?
  • What Rewards encourage that person to engage in the unacceptable behavior(s)?
    In other words, what will make it easy to do the wrong thing?
  • What Rewards discourage that person to engage in these unacceptable behavior(s)?

Some examples:

Think about a project manager who consistently delivers quality work on-time, and under-budget. When you have a project that is in the weeds, she’s the one you want to give it to, right? So the encouraged behavior is Delivering Difficult Projects on Time. The Reward for that is… More difficult, complicated projects. The Reward actually discourages what we want.

Across the hall is another PM who always screws things up. He has time in his calendar, but when this gnarly project comes up, are you going to give it to him? Probably not. So he is exhibiting discouraged behavior, but receiving a positive Reward.

What Do We Do with This Information?

Once we have an honest assessment articulated, we want to:

  • Do the things identified in Question One – that is, create an environment that encourages desired behaviors;
  • Eliminate the obstacles identified in Question Two;
  • Stop doing the things that answer Question Three – too often we chalk it up to the “law” of unintended consequences!
  • Judiciously implement the activities from Question Four
    (This one is “punishment” – what happens to an employee when she screws up. This is where many managers go first (and stay there); I suggest going there as a last resort. “Honey” vs. “vinegar” and all that.)

Setting Expectations for Leaders

The answers to Question One – setting up an environment that makes it easy to do the right thing – need to be implemented by somebody. Leaders.

In fact, these are the Desired Behaviors for an employee’s supervisors. Set these expectations with them.

Repeat the entire exercise with these behaviors for this new population. (i.e., What will encourage the supervisor to do this? What will discourage her?) The answers to this round of questions becomes the new expectations for the supervisor’s supervisor.

Repeat at the next level. And the next.

That’s how you build an “environment”.

You Still Have to Lead

Remember that people behave as individuals, and aren’t always going to do what you want. It takes time to think through and clarify what you expect – and what you won’t accept – from your employees, and then to understand their personal reward systems.

Instead of coming up with a rousing “motivational” speech – or worse, yet, hanging cheesy posters – invest that effort into understanding what pulls employees in different directions.

You don’t have to make it “easy” for employees – but you shouldn’t make it harder.

Understanding, even at a basic level, what employees value allows you to draw them to their goals and remove roadblocks. And, sometimes, you find out what you think is valuable provides nothing to your staff.

Or what you think is punishment – like forcing your cereal to sit in the milk – is what they were planning on doing, anyway.

I know Carlin would not approve of using his wisdom to improve corporate America. For a case study a little more, er, corporate, click here.

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