Reward Success, Reward Failure, Punish Inaction

At my last job, this quote was printed on an old, half dog-eared, half-torn piece of paper, and stuck to a random pillar in the office.

As fate would have it, I sat next to this pillar for my first few months there, and this message seemed to resonate with me since then. It’s (quietly) one of my life mantras.

I don’t know who came up with the proverb, but i believe it’s quite accurate of how people should be treated (and ironically the complete opposite of how i was treated at the company).

Reward Success – This one is pretty easy. If you do a good job, you should be rewarded for your efforts

Reward Failure – Important point. if you try, but fail. you’re still successful. You’re successful in that you’ve managed to try something new. You’ve managed to attempt something difficult, and although you didn’t get there, you’ve learnt more from failing than you possibly would have from succeeding. Sometimes it’s important to know that by touching a hot iron, you’ll get burnt. lesson learnt for future (yes i’m reliving a childhood memory there 😉

Punish Inaction – Fundamental point. If you do nothing; if you sit back, and let things go on around you without actively addressing the issue, you’ve failed miserably. knowing of a problem and doing nothing about it is the worst course of action that one could take. The problem spirals out of control and the you’re in the thick of it.

Why am i posting? Because i learnt that while i was on holidays a member of my team discovered that one of our computers was compromised, and failed to act on it. I discovered the problem myself, and have taken the (only) course of action which is to bring the servers down and re-build with a post-mortem to come. But to learn of a serious breach of security, and NOT do anything about it is undeniably the complete opposite of how the problem should have been addressed.

Reward Success – if the problem was acted on, then i would be blogging about the reverse right now

Reward Failure – if the problem was discovered, and they were unable to fix it, but managed to contain the damage, that’s still commendable. You can’t hold someone liable if they don’t know how to fix the problem.

Punish Inaction – the problem was not acted on. The problem was left around for nearly 2 months until my return, and subsequent discovery. Who knows how deep the problem has gone, and we’re now all entangled right in the middle.

it’s been a shitty week.


  1. I really like that article.

    there are several seagull managers with whom i work(/ed) with who could benefit from reading this.

  2. That proverb is still up on the wall 🙂
    But – whilst I always thought it was “nice” and a good way of working with things – lately i’ve become more cynical and am not so sure it really works.
    Rewarding failure is fine – it is the only way people grow. You can’t punish someone every time they fail – because ultimately they will stop trying and you will have forced them into “inaction” out of fear of reprimand.

    BUT – you also cannot say that if you work your butt off but fail, that’s OK, just try again. You can say this up to a certain point and then you have to start thinking about practicalities.

    So from an academic point of view – the quote is valid. But from a practical – ie money – point of view, I think you have to draw the line where failure, at some point, becomes a problem.


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