What motivates us at work is ultimately a very personal and individual topic, though generalities do apply. That’s why I get a chuckle out of research study after research study showing we nearly always guess incorrectly what would motivate others.
Case in point, research out of Duke University and George Mason University discussed on the Blanchard LeaderChat blog. The research showed that we think other people are more motivated by external incentives (compensation, job security, promotions) than we are ourselves. No, we’re more altruistic and are motivated by things like interesting work, being appreciated for making meaningful contributions, and being asked for our opinion.
My point? Simply this – as Jacque Vilet pointed out in a post late last week, making assumptions about other’s motivations leads to the law of unintended consequences going into effect at work.
Here are just a couple examples from the incentives side of the house – one common in the business world and one from the world of sports.
Perfect Attendance Awards Incent the Wrong Behaviors
“Perfect Attendance” awards are a really bad idea. Yes, we want our employees to come to work. But we already pay them to be here and to do their job. At their base, that’s what attendance awards are all about – show up and do your job.
In fact, attendance awards aren’t recognition. They are incentives – “do this and you’ll get that.” Show up every day without missing and you’ll get an award. And like many incentives programs, it’s easy to incent the wrong behavior. In this case, you’re often encouraging employees to come to work sick (and infect those around them). More to the point, sick employees at work cannot be fully focused on the task at hand so they are working below par anyway (sometimes dangerously so). In some roles, this can have drastic consequences.
Unintended Consequences of Incentives at the Olympics
Incentives can have the unsavory effect of causing people to want to “game the system.” And that’s precisely what happened in this summer’s Olympics badminton scandal (and perhaps to a lesser extent in the track cycling event as well). For those who may have missed it, three teams were sanctioned and then disqualified for intentionally trying to lose their matches. In one spectacular instance two teams playing each other did this, making the very poor play from top-seeded countries very obvious.
Instantly, one has to wonder, why would Olympic-level athletes work hard to lose? As the news explained:
“Teams blamed the introduction of a round-robin stage rather than a straight knockout tournament as the main cause of the problem. In the round-robin format, losing one game can lead to an easier matchup in the next round.”
The bottom-line: There were very clear incentives – pre-determined rules and outcomes – for them to do so. Namely, an easier quarterfinals competition and a better shot at the gold.
Of course this is not “within the Olympic Spirit,” as many observers and other athletes/competitors commented. The Olympic Spirit has as much to do with the “how” as the “what” – how a win was achieved as well as the win itself.
And that’s why in most cases I strongly recommend a strategic recognition program over a traditional incentives scheme. Recognizing and rewarding the behaviors and actions involved in achieving the outcome (as a surprise after-the-fact) is far more effective than incenting behaviors – and feeding into the law of unintended consequences – with known rules and outcomes that can be gamed.
What incentives programs are gamed in your organization?
As Globoforce’s Head of Strategic Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. His articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.