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Beware the “Warp-Zone” Employee

Can increased pay really change a person’s behavior?

I had a blast at the recent ProSource Summit in Orlando. One of the best parts of these trips is the opportunity to connect with other business owners. The conversations run all over the place, but year after year I find that certain themes emerge. This year I heard more than a few mentions of owners lamenting employees looking for more money without any commensurate increase in output.

Let me be clear, I want our employees to make as much money as they can. To that end, we have variable comp and spiffs galore. We’ve also raised wages and prices three times in the past year and pay at the top of personal market for all of our roles. We want the best talent and intentionally pay more than they could make somewhere else. The stories I heard from my brothers and sisters all followed a similar theme and went something like this: Employee approaches the boss and lets them know that they have a ton of excess talent and capabilities available, and if they were paid more, that would magically “unlock” this untapped reserve of awesomeness. “Ah yes,” I said. “The warp-zone employee.”

Also by Henry Clifford: Normalizing Turnover

Here’s the backstory on my “warp zone” analogy: Think back to Super Mario Bros. and remember your first encounter with the opportunity to jump ahead to a world (Level 5!) by just plunging into a green plumbing pipe. That’s the same “too good to be true” presentation offered up by employees offering instant performance gains in exchange for an hourly bump in pay. I met my first warp-zone employee in 2005. His name was Ben Johnston (name changed to keep me from getting flagged by HR) and he assured me that he would do all the things that I’d been asking about (super-advanced skills like keeping a clean van, showing up on time, and wearing a uniform) if I paid him more money. I fell for it. Johnston immediately improved for two whole weeks. He then proceeded to slowly devolve back to his old ways. The only difference was that he was making more money and I felt suckered.

Super Mario Bros. Warp Zone

In the years since Johnston left Livewire, I’ve encountered a few more warp-zone employees. Some I gave into, some I didn’t. No matter what I did, the result was the same each time; a slight short-term rise in performance followed by a flattening out or slight decrease in original performance.

Also by Henry Clifford: Experience Is the Best Teacher

Experts ranging from B.F. Skinner to Mark Twain have offered up the guidance that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Ain’t that the truth. How many times have we ignored the bleeding obvious in favor of our own conclusion biases?

Do you have any warp-zone employees? What are you going to do the next time one walks into your office?