Designing effective incentives, rewards, recognition and influence programs is 1/3rd Art, 2/3rds science and 1/3rd luck.
Unfortunately, many in the incentive industry believe they can pull the wool over the eyes of potential buyers by “standing next to Einstein” and hoping the buyer can’t tell the difference between them and a real thought leader. Or in the case of this post on Incentive Magazine - standing next to B.F. Skinner.
A few weeks back Incentive Magazine (full disclosure - I've written articles for them in the past) ran an article called “Designing Employee Reinforcement” written by an Exec from one of the larger incentive suppliers. The article states:
"We need to adjust our thinking about how we compensate and motivate our workforces. In short, we need to inspire our people in ways that are both effective and affordable.
A good way to start is to think less about rewarding results and more about reinforcement of positive behaviors required to produce the results. This is a simple and effective methodology that, when deployed properly, can create a positive and enthusiastic work environment."
I am in 100% agreement with those two paragraphs. Focus on behavior and look at ways to make the environment positive.
Then the author goes insane.
I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!
The article jumps from a good intro to a discussion on the concepts of operant conditioning.
Specifically, the various reinforcement schedules studied by B.F. Skinner in the late 1930’s and further refined through the 50’s and into the 70’s. If you have spent any time reviewing Skinner’s work you know this... Skinner really did not believe in free will.
Watch the first minute of this video on conditioning featuring an interview with Skinner. Pay attention to the comments made 26 seconds into the video... (email/rss readers will have to click through to the post to see video.)
Here's the important piece of information...
“So the pigeon isn’t acting independently. It’s behavior is shaped by it’s environment.”
The extension of this line of thinking is: the best program design for engagement is a program where your employees aren't thinking independently.
Let me ask this simple question? Do you really think applying operant conditioning to employees is the best way to get employees “inspired” and create a “positive and enthusiastic environment”?
Standing Next To, Isn’t Being
This article is simply a trick to make you think that because an incentive supplier quotes a famous scientist about behavior, they know what they are talking about. Standing next to Skinner doesn’t make you right.
I quote a lot of studies and scientific stuff, and in most cases, I will admit if I’m not sure they apply to program design. I’m always looking for ways to help companies increase the odds of influencing behavior ethically and in a way that benefits both the employee, the channel audience AND the company. So, I bring up ideas and thoughts based on those studies. I don't think I've ever recommended that you condition employees (can you say “A Clockwork Orange?”) I'll be the first one to tell you that the studies are directional - not dictatorial.
Studies and theories are simply jumping off points to help you determine how to best align your goals and your employees.
If you buy the idea that the best way to engage employees is through rote behavioral conditioning than you deserve the program you get – and you deserve the long-term employee problems you will experience.
Engagement Isn’t Conditioning
This article is not only demeaning to employees, it’s demeaning to buyers of incentive programs and frankly – continues to position those in the industry as snake oil sales people that will do anything to sell a toaster or a trip.
Quality influence programs signal the behaviors your company values. Quality programs reward and recognize behaviors that reinforce your company values, mission and culture. Properly designed incentive programs communicate direction and allow employees to choose to play and be rewarded.
Operant conditioning can and will drive a behavior. And that’s great if you want the dog to stay in the yard or get your employees to turn off their computers. However, if you want thinking, engaged, challenging, happy, innovative and ethical employees - this ain't the right path.
Forget the “conditioning” and worry about the “conditions”
Spend time finding out what is needed to get employees to WANT to contribute versus listening to this garbage about conditioning your employees like pigeons and rats. The last thing most companies need is a bunch of drones – pecking away at a dot in order to get a morsel of food or another crystal vase.
I don’t believe operant condition – no matter if it is effective or not – is a strategy you should NEVER consider. And frankly – I don’t think it will work anyway. We have free will, we have the ability to understand context and we can tell (usually) when we’re being manipulated. And when we smell manipulation – we start looking for a way out of that rat’s maze.
Don’t assume because someone is standing next to Einstein they are as smart as him.
Just approach employees ethically and honestly. That’s what they really want.