Fear of failure or frightening repercussions has a negative impact on performance.

What can owls and cheese teach you about influencing others?


When someone achieves something great at work, do they get recognised or praised? What about when someone does something wrong, do they get punished or reprimanded?

As a manager, it is your responsibility to set out what is okay and what isn’t at work. And it is your job to monitor this as well. If you want to foster a high performing team, it could come down to the way you’re thinking about rewards and punishment.

Influencing people with owls and cheese

One of the most senior leaders in the UK’s healthcare system explained some of the psychology behind rewards to McKinsey & Company. She talked about an experiment where participants had to move a toy mouse through a maze, to either a desirable piece of cheese or a scary owl.

While it may seem a bit childish, this research was a way to see whether a positive reward or a feared outcome influenced the way people worked. And it certainly did.

The desirable reward actually improved performance by 50 per cent. So what can we take away from this?

You don’t want your workers to be worried about completing a task because of fears of failing and being told off. You want them to try harder so they can get that piece of cheese and sink their teeth into that reward or little bit of recognition.

It’s really about fending off any negativity and getting rid of the owl at the end of the maze. This kills productivity, so the answer lies in enhancing your influencing skills and giving feedback in a positive and uplifting way.

To change the behaviour of others, you don’t always need to tell them off, but you do need to tell them how they can improve. If you want to learn some more techniques about how to best use your sticks and carrots, get in touch with the Institute for Communication Management and Leadership today.

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