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A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Okay, we all get the gist of this one.

The sure thing is better than the possibility of getting something better.

Maybe, maybe not. Isn’t there something to nothing ventured nothing gained?  How much better is the other alternative?  And what is the probability that I can get that something better?  Do you promise that there’s two in the bush and can I be pretty confident that I can catch them?

All rational, logical, relevant questions, no?

You remember the marshmallow test?  A group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow, but they were told if they could wait to eat it they could have a second one.  Some kids were able to wait and others couldn’t. If you want to see it, click here.

Some kids have impulse control, others don’t.  Some can delay gratification; others not so much.  Big deal.

Turns out it actually was; the extended study of these kids revealed that those with the ability to wait for the second marshmallow scored higher on their SATs…

So much for a bird in the hand…

Except that now we have new data from an enhanced marshmallow test, adding an interesting twist.


So if we don’t trust the environment … the odds shift in favor of staying with the bird in the hand …

Interesting, no?  Interesting, but, again, big deal.  So what!?!

Ahhh … this is a very big deal.

At work, it plays into engagement, productivity, quality, and turnover.

When we’re engaged at work, we are more productive; we produce better quality; and we stay, because we are contributing, and it is satisfying.  For our contributions, we are paid, of course, but there’s the promise of more, and that factors into the equation.

What happens when the environment is perceived to shift a bit?  Either there isn’t quite the opportunity to utilize your expertise, or the juicy projects once-promised to you go to others, or maybe the organization has hit some speed bumps, and the information coming from the leaders isn’t quite as, well, forthcoming.

Slipping into disengagement is characterized by increasingly dwelling on not what you give, but what you get.  The compelling mission of the organization no longer drives your discretionary effort.  The promise of future opportunity as the organization grows doesn’t hold quite the sway it once did.

A day’s work for a day’s pay.  A bird in the hand.  The promise of a second marshmallow holds no sway, if the promise is perceived as unreliable.  The parking lot is largely empty at five o’clock.

The larger — in life — implications are troubling …

  • If there’s little hope of climbing out of poverty, why should the poor continue to work those minimum wage jobs?  (It’s become somewhat in vogue to demonize the disadvantaged and attribute their condition to their laziness or other weak and unflattering traits, but the much stronger attribution is to a palpable distrust that the system does not enable realization of that “American Dream” promise.)
  • If there’s little hope of overcoming prejudice and discrimination —-ethnic, racial, et. al. — why should those in the cross hairs of such injustice stay in school?
  • The vast majority of teachers love teaching.  They also love kids.  But when the outcome measurement is the test scores, their continued income screams of simply teaching to the test… and how does that reinforce the love of teaching kids?  (It doesn’t.  It reinforces internal conflict and disengagement.)
  • Is there any surprise that we have apathy and such a large population of low-information voters when the promises of the campaign trail and the tactics of the parties are questionable?

There must be some reasonable expectation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… for when not self-evident… there won’t be impulse control.  There won’t be delayed gratification.  There won’t be increasing SAT scores.  There won’t be high performing organizations.  There won’t be life, liberty, and happiness.

There will be one bird, and not two; one marshmallow, and not another.

We can demonize and blame each other all we want for not risking the bird in the hand for the two in the bush and not keeping our eye on the second marshmallow prize, but when there’s unreliability and distrust…

Trustworthy leaders and reliable environments really matter.

Failing the marshmallow test does too.