I guess the saying “one person’s meat is another’s poison” dates back to Shakespearian times where both meat and poison were daily occurences in workplaces? (Possibly simultaneously? Spoiler alert.) I had to make it “person” instead of “man” so it dates back a couple of decades anyway. What I’m trying to say is that what appeals to some doesn’t sppeal to all. Chocolate fish aren’t for everyone but to me they’re the universal symbol of incentives. If there is a continuum with carrots and sticks, chocolate fish are way out beyond carrots. That’s just me. You might be more into sticks. Freak.
Employers (and tax lawyers) seem to think of reward and remuneration mainly in terms of money or cars or trips to Fiji. The whole raison detre of pay and bonuses and incentives is to drive, direct and / or curtail behaviours – carrots and sticks. At a biological level within human beings’ very bodies, human systems have had a range of microscopic rewards being granted and denied all the time for millennia that are incredibly powerful in driving and restraining our behaviour. Have you tried giving up sugar or even cutting down? Good luck. The chemistry rewards behind that are way more effective than reimbursing costs of study after proof of passing the course. Salaries and bonuses are great but we love that dopamine buzz when we check our email or FaceBook page.
I’m not suggesting we should be offering drugs to employees as a reward for performance (although that would make a great sci-fi screenplay.)
I have a manufacturing / sales client who are offering a major prize for all staff if targets are met. It’s value per person is around three thousand dollars. There’s a big colour-in thermometer graphic on the wall indicating progress towards target against time. Six months into the year, they are at 50.3% towards traget. Sound great? Sound effective? I should probably add the bit I’ve missed out. Everyone gets the prize if the target is met but, if even one department fails to meet their own individual target, then no one gets the prize. When I first heard that, I thought, “OK, there’s a couple of ways this could turn out…”
Last week a colleague was telling me of his friend who’d bought a rural property and was thinking about quitting the day job, leaving the commute behind and working from home. But she loved the work, liked the people and seemed to have some loyalty stored up to her employer. Then, last Christmas they had their usual staff gathering at the local tavern and, maybe, it seemed like their was a little less food and drink. Everyone got an envelope and inside everyone’s envelope was a single movie ticket. Not a double pass. Not a gold class ticket. A single general admission. Technically I guess that could be classified, at least for tax purposes, as an incentive. I don’t think it literally was an incentive – probably the opposite. It certainly removed any lingering doubts she had about her giving up the day job and it certainly soaked up her residual loyalty far more effectively than it could have soaked up spilled beer on the bar if she’d left it there and stormed out. Me, I didn’t even realise they still had paper movie coupons.
Remuneration is relative. The nature of people makes it so. Our perception of the absolute value of what we receive is impacted greatly by our perception of what we believe others are receiving. In studies where subjects have been offered the choice of a situation where they’re earning $60,000 while their peers are earning 70,000 or a situation where they’re earning $50,000 while their peers are earning $40,000, a significant majority prefer the latter. More people would rather earn less as long as they were relatively better off than the people with whom they associated.
At an HR conference I MC’d, a speaker talked of a group of scientists. They were in high demand and were sitting targets to be poached by high-paying, prestigious overseas employers. They’d like to stay here but money is quite magnetic (figuratively not literally – although I wonder if magnetic coins might be a cool thing for tourists at least.) It certainly wasn’t the sole attempted solution but one thing they tried was gamification. Or, as this speaker put it, scout badges. They created a matrix, effectively a skill matrix. As the scientists demonstrated competence in a range of pre-agreed skills, ranging from the technical and specific to leadership and customer service. (“That’s not science!”, I imagine them saying, but my impression of scientists is heavily influenced by TV’s ‘The Big Bang Theory.’)
I didn’t think that was gamification. I thought gamification was the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ sense of self-contribution. The scout badges seem more like FlyBuys but without any chance of getting a new toasted sandwich maker out of it. I’m not disrespecting the badges idea. They reported it was well received and effective. I think they might work as part of a portfolio of ideas because they leverage an age-old need that people have. It’s another word beginning with “re” that isn’t reward or remuneration. It also isn’t retirement, although that might loom as an incentive for some. Certainly it did for my 5th form history teacher Mr O’Leary who at the start of each lesson would inform us exactly how many days he had left until retirement. I think that’s OK when you’re a cop, you’ve just taken on a young and reckless partner, a case that isn’t what it seems lands on your desk and you’re two days from retirement. The word is recognition.
This article cites Dan Ariely’s research into the effects on monetary incentives on people’s performance and the surprising results. I first heard about this in an online video of Dan Pink’s and he included references to Ariely’s work in his great book ‘Drive.’ You should check out both Pink’s book and Ariely’s ‘Predictably Irrational.’ Impactful research told engagingly.
Broadly, money works fine as a performance incentive in limited situations. For dull, linear, routine processes where ‘more’ productivity is easily produced by ‘more’ effort. The moment any degree of cognitive processing is required at-risk extra money becomes, at best, a distraction. Mostly its impact is negative.
Money is what 70-year-oldd psychologists refer to as a ‘hygiene factor.’ It won’t motivate anyone but the absence of it will demotivate people.
I’m looking at a big pile of absent money right now and it is, indeed, highly demotivating. Oddly though it has motivated me to scribble out a quick blog post. I suspect there is a strong correlation between my blog productivity and money absence.
Leaders, managers, supervisors – all those who are charged with the responsibility of producing improved results through other people – are constantly on the look-out for ways to provide behaviour reinforcement to those people. Why? Because, for their entire careers, that’s what they’ve been taught is the smart thing to do. Maybe they’ve even had some experience of it working. Carrots and sticks, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction (look it up.) It sounds plausible – reward the behaviours we want more of and disincentify those we want less, or none, of. Antecedent, behaviour and consequence. To this approach, in general terms I say, “Yeah Nah.”
Christopher Shea recently blogged briefly in the Wall Street Journal about rewards – gifts for staff for performances rendered. It’s interesting. It references a German economist’s study of the relative effectiveness of little cash rewards versus little equivalent gifty rewards. The moral of the story and it’s hard to argue with this = it’s the thought that counts. Check it out.
If you’re in a leadership role & you’re seriously considering slapping a $7 coffee mug on someone’s desk for “doing a bang-up job and just being a real trooper”, then maybe you should stop reading blogs about leadership and start reading fortunes in chicken entrails? That way you might be awakened to the possible future consequences of such a dog-treat approach to motivating people. If it’s the thought that counts (and it is) then give the thought via ongoing, sincere, specific, esteem-building, behaviour-based and timely feedback. Put the $7 in a jar. Soon enough, it’ll add up to a morning tea team soiree which is probably more effective than individual tokens which may do more harm than good.
Interesting as it was, that study was even more so after some recent reading I’ve been doing on the lie that is behavioral reinforcement in the workplace. Employees are grown-up human beings not kids or dogs. Chucking them a treat is supposed to reinforce ongoing performance improvement? I think that is true sometimes and people in robotic linear task-oriented jobs may well respond to these if they are done well.
Neverthless, if you have ordered 144 coffee mugs printed with the slogan, ‘You don’t have to be mired in 19th century management thinking to work here but it helps’ you may as well distribute them to your team – assuming they haven’t left for better jobs at the performing seals’ circus.