SOMEWHERE AWFULMatt Kosinski’s interesting recent article “Do Your Employees Want Career Development? Maybe You Should Send Them Out of the Country” got me thinking about what a great idea sending employees overseas for professional development is.

There’s the broadening of perspectives, the exposure to other cultures and their professionals, the excitement of new venues and opportunities, fresh synergies, glimpses of other ways of getting things done and other learning experiences, even just the change of scene, especially to an exotic one—not to mention the gratitude and commitment expressed by participating employers and employees alike: Great stuff! Solid idea.

But then I thought about my current situation in a similar, but self-sponsored circumstance: Working on the road, abroad, first in Japan, now in Taiwan. Indeed, it has been and will continue to be a very positive professional development opportunity—certainly in terms of providing themes and context for some of the articles I write. My interactions with locals have also revealed stunning contrasts, e.g., between the amazing customer service in Japan and the service at the last place at home we will ever shop at again.

Yes, that’s all very nice. However, there’s one twist I’d like to give the idea of overseas professional development programs and excursions, as a recommendation: Send employees to awful places—places that are too hot, too cold, too dangerous, too boring, too ugly, too polluted, too noisy, too crowded, or too infested with snakes, scorpions or spiders. Almost anything awful will do.

My Real-Life Example

Let me give just one clear, real-life, personal example to make this point: I am currently writing this in my extremely comfortable and clean, albeit compact and simple budget hotel room in Tainan, Taiwan—this country’s oldest city which features lots of charming old stuff, including temples galore.

What is and has been making it extremely comfortable and pleasant is, in addition to the great deal I got on the room for two weeks, the dial on my wall that allows me to adjust my room temperature—downward, to the 16 degrees Celsius that I, and some other bigger guys I know, thrive on. (That’s 60.8 Fahrenheit—way too cold for most women, except channel swimmers and Polar Bear club swimmers.) Outside, it is almost August 1st and was blisteringly hot and humid all day. How hot and humid? No joke—too “hotmid” to breathe (without noticeable strain). Now, that’s “awful”.

So, what’s so good about awful? The answer is obvious: I’ll get more work done, which is all to the good for both and me. When I say “more work”, I mean, for example, work done in advance, as a hedge against unforeseen disruptions, such as crashed computers (which has happened a lot this past year) or disruption of Internet service.

No temptations of sweaty sightseeing, going out to meet and mingle with locals, planting myself at some sidewalk cafe or noodle shop and watch the girls on or off scooters go by. No inclination to go back to “must see” places to take better photos, hunt for bargains in narrow, hot and busy streets or sit idly by the steaming wide river that runs through the city. Nope. None of that—in this kind of heat—can compete with bracing myself with a couple of cooled pillows typing and thinking away (usually in the reverse order) under a chilled canopy of conditioned air.

Justifying Awful with Scientific Principle

The underlying psychological-physiological principle that makes this “send them somewhere awful” approach wonderful is simple: Pleasure, indeed, intense pleasure, can take the form of relief from pain. So, send employees somewhere that is in some sense painful to be and then switch off the pain. Once there and in the end, they’ll thank you for it, if you are the employer, or revel in the relief, as one of the employees.

In psychology this is called “negative reinforcement“—which must not, as it all too commonly is, be confused with punishment, because it is in fact the opposite: it is the termination of punishment or an “aversive stimulus”, as a reward for behavior (in this case, a reward for ceasing to do anything else but work, once there).

If you imagine that employees will resent what may be perceived as “bait and switch”, just consider what the ultimate switch is: to something very pleasant—a very nice, maybe elegant hotel suite (preferably at a classy hotel without a pool). How can anybody resent that—especially if the company is paying for the switch? Sure, some will have had their misguided hearts set on seeing the vaunted local sights and sites, but unless the employer deliberately misrepresents the locale and its conditions, in the end, the employees can only blame themselves for not having done their due diligence in researching the destination before agreeing to go there.

One Caveat for Employers and HR Managers

Hence, it is critical for employers and HR managers to avoid promising any undeliverables. Just let nature—and misunderstanding—take its course. One favorable factor, of course, is human nature—specifically, laziness as a trait, deterrent and obstacle to due diligence. If employers can’t count on it, at least they can hope for it.

Of course, there are limits to acceptable awful. However, even though degree of awfulness may be difficult to gauge, it is easy enough to identify the most awful overseas professional development locales.

Any place from which employees won’t voluntarily return…

…especially one from which they won’t return alive.


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