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!]