Yelling improves employee performance

June 12, 2013

Read time 2 min

If you yell at resources (e.g. people) when they perform poorly, they will perform better next time.

This is easy to demonstrate. Take a normal 6-sided dice and throw it. When you get a 1 or a 2, yell at the dice and make it understand how worthless it is. Then throw again, and observe how most of the time the results improve after yelling.

With the dice example it’s easy to understand that there is a correlation, but no causation. Instead of yelling we could just as well do a rain dance and the results would be the same. It’s not the yelling (or the rain dance) that’s causing the improvement. The phenomenon we’re witnessing is called regression to the mean.

Regression to the mean “is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement”[Wikipedia]. If you yell at people after poor performance, their results are likely to improve. However, they’re likely to improve even if you don’t. Similarly, if their performance is exceptionally high, it’s likely fall.

With the dice game this is obvious because you know yelling will not affect the outcome of the dice. The dice doesn’t have feelings you can hurt. Instead the variation in outcomes stems from the dice itself, or rather, from how it was built.

Similarly, the variation of performance in our organisations stems from how they are built. With too many mandatory meetings, too many urgent emails, too much pressure and too much hostility the system actively prevents individuals from succeeding. Yet it’s the individual that is most often blamed.

Yelling at the individual is the same thing as yelling at a dice. If your company is performing poorly, it’s the system that needs fixing.

And PS. Don’t call people resources.

(This blog post is based on the work of Kahneman and Deming.)

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