The Zombies Ate My Brains

Rescuing what might remain of the grey matter.

Which came first: the rubber chicken, or…?

Continuing with the effective supervision theme, if you read my post on motivation, you might enjoy this  follow-up piece in which I discuss incentives in the workplace.  And rubber chickens.

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has uncovered a trend as regards the use of incentives to increase motivation in the workplace.  In brief: they don’t work when misapplied.  Besides that little nugget of perhaps unsurprising information, there is the fact that results of incentive programs are becoming more difficult to measure and manage. “According to research and the opinions of most experts consulted for this paper, the greater complexities of motivating creative, non-routine workers using incentives and rewards, has led to a higher frequency of poorly designed or misdirected programs.”

In his RSA video on motivation and what drives us, Dan Pink reports that “over and over again” studies conclude that only in the case of performing a rudimentary mechanical task did financial incentives have any impact on increased productivity. In the case of more complex tasks that required cognitive input, productivity actually decreased when the rewards were highest.

Therefore some programs to encourage increased production not only lack any motivational value, they can backfire and cost the organization more in terms of wasted time and money. In some cases, worse:

Misapplied programs might “lead to a cynical workforce, organizational damage, and, in some extreme cases, societal harm.”

I’m familiar with the cynical outcome. I once managed a branch of a women’s clothing store. The owner tried to boost sales by introducing an employee recognition program. Our store won a monthly contest for highest sales. We all had our eyes on the snazzy summer frocks that we expected would be our reward. The prize was a T-shirt: a cheap, lousy T-shirt that cost her maybe $0.50 wholesale. Yeah, I guess I’m cynical.

Alexander Kjerulf writes about another incentive program gone sideways. A store manager implemented a safety program whereby an employee who violated procedure was punished by having to wear a two-foot rubber chicken around the neck – in full view of customers. In order to “escape” from the punishment, the first offender could find another employee behaving “unsafely” and hand over the chicken. “The practice quickly descended into a game of hot potato, with employees chasing one another around the store in search of the slightest violation to rid themselves of the safety chicken.”

It’s a cute but effective illustration. A worker’s focus on the reward or punishment might lead to taking shortcuts and other acts that result in shoddy work and unsafe practice.

When properly designed and applied, incentive programs are effective. The study isolated five conditions under which incentive programs work best:

  • Current performance is inadequate.
  • The cause of the inadequate performance is related to deficiencies in motivation.
  • The desired performance type and level can be measured.
  • The goal is challenging but achievable.
  • The focus on promoting a particular behavior does not conflict with or override everyday organizational goals [e.g. the safety chicken!]
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Categories: Continuing Education, Work, work, work

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4 replies

  1. What? No interesting test words in THIS post for search engines? lol. That owner of the women’s clothing store really blew it. BUT the rubber chicken thing is absolutely hysterical! I am picturing that being done with employees in a butcher shop. But I am very odd. Great title! Great graphic! Great Post!!

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  2. My blog about this experience in a post on my sh#ttiest jobs:

    During my unhappy tenure as a chambermaid, the hotel hired an “efficiency ‘expert'” to “motivate” us to yet more dizzying heights of hygiene. This male (of course) chose to do this by patronizing (of course) the entirely female (of course) workforce. He chose to issue…letter graded report cards on each of our rooms! Unbelievable!

    The first day he came up to me, at my tender age of 17, and told me that I could be proud because the first room of mine he assessed had rated a B+, I was indeed motivated. I quietly approached him and, standing toe to toe, told him very calmly that he and I both knew the kinds of shortcuts many maids used–shortcuts he knew I did not take–and if he ever issued a GRADE to one of my rooms again, I would make him acquainted with the upper end of my broom.

    I am proud to say I did not lose my job, and he never bothered me again.

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    • Great story! I think you may have taught that young efficiency expert a valuable lesson, at least I hope he learned something, other than a healthy respect for broom handles. Enh, who am I kidding? Probably not. He just scuttled back to his hole and probably harassed those less able to defend their dignity.

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