Today, some government bureaucrats seem to have a better handle on behavioral psychology than many of us who claim to be experts on reward program practices. The usually backwards and dilatory criminal justice system may be ahead of the American compensation profession.
Strange, how idle reading can trigger synchronicity. Browsing through my local County Jail Report to see how many friends have been ... I mean ... what notable incarcerations occurred in my area (where lockup decisions are strictly limited for numerous reasons), I found an unfamiliar phrase: "booked on a swift and certain warrant". Being an ever-curious researcher, I quickly discovered it was a non-traditional approach to deter criminal probationers from re-offending. It resonated quite strongly. The National Institute of Justice report about early experimental findings matched my experiences, my studies, my readings and my convictions.
(Hawaii's) program is strongly grounded in research that shows that crime generally is committed by people for whom deferred and low-probability threats of severe punishment are less effective than immediate and high-probability threats of mild punishment.
"Swift and certain" punishment for violating terms of probation sends a consistent message to probationers about personal responsibility and accountability. Research has shown that a swift response to an infraction improves the perception that the sanction is fair and that the immediacy is a vital tool in shaping behavior. "
This information should have swept through the field of behavioral psychology to impact the design and administration of employee reward systems. The Department of Justice program is neither new nor is it hidden from sight. Yes, it was initially tested in only four counties nationwide, but our human resources communities should have been on top of this for years by now. Granted, negative reinforcement is unpopular among "people professionals", but the implications seem obvious that you can maximizing the prospective effectiveness of positive consequences by using the same methods.
The best compensation programs are positive, immediate and certain. The motivational impact of a consequence is directly proportional to the immediacy of its application. Consistency enhances trust in fairness. I thought we all knew these things about the most successful reward approaches but were continually blocked by unbelieving top executives.
A body of behavioral evidence now can be cited to overcome resistance to practical everyday approaches that apply "fast response for stronger impact" principles. It is important to recognize that proof exists that reinforcement flaws can be corrected, better methods work well and superior systems can be successfully substituted for failed ones. Instead of passively surrendering to the easy temptation to cravenly abandon the fight for excellence in our trade, we can stand behind this shield of credible facts and launch new improved initiatives to better manage human resources.
But where are those new proposals?
Am I so out of the loop that I have missed the active academic and practical debates that normally would have accompanied such dramatic findings? At present, undeniable evidence of the enhanced effectiveness of fast and certain but modest reinforcement is available from public agencies. They are conducting these behavioral modification experiments with taxpayer funds; so potential commercial users of the knowledge can reap benefits (and profits) from applications without any research costs. One would expect many conference workshops to spring up featuring implementation experts eager to sell their newly copyrighted tools and procedures. Did they? Why haven't the usual big consulting firms mounted their typical national pushes to market nifty bundled (and ideally cloud-based) solutions requiring the purchase of many lucrative billing hours?
Have we missed another train? Or have I merely been asleep at the switch?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience in most industries. After corporate HR posts and consulting CEO roles, he was Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI before returning to consulting in 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and frequent expert witness in reasonable executive compensation court cases, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
"Mousetrap" image by Jarod Kearney, courtesy of Creative Commons