Are We Motivating or Bribing Our People?

The way you treat your employees can seem very similar to how you treat your children. If you bribe your kids with goodies to gain their compliance, then their natural willingness to comply will drop. Often times, organizational leaders are guilty of using similar bribery when motivating workplace people.

Since the 1940s, we have become accustomed to using extrinsic (external) rewards for incentivizing workplace people: such as, bonuses, commissions, promotions, competition, penalties, potential firing, demotions, “clocking-in and out,” and so on. But numerous studies since the ‘60s have proven extrinsic rewards are counterproductive because they are similar to “lighting fires under people.”

More recently, I had the option of reading Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive, which points out the futility of using extrinsic incentives. According to the Times article, Dan Pink stated,”The problem with bribing is not the rewards; it’s the contingency, which is a form of control. Human beings have only two reactions to control. They either comply or defy.

In the workplace, defiance comes in the form of disinterest or ignoring the requirement for action. So many executives experience such behavior from their people without realizing their issue. Instead, they just up the ante to induce interest, which can become prohibitively expensive for their organizations.

Another reality is what Pink describes in his book as, “…offering short-term incentives to elicit behavior. It is unreliable, ineffective and causes ‘considerable long-term damage.’ People perform the task merely to get the reward: when the reward is removed, they stop doing it.” Again, when a work task is not particularly enjoyable or especially challenging, offering ever increasing incentives (bribes) to complete those tasks causes organizations to shoot themselves in the foot, and incurs the sheer expense of the incentives.

As an alternative path, we need to understand what motivates people intrinsically or “lights fires within them.” By doing this, we will perpetuate the desired behaviors and results without having to constantly “bribe” people. Writers like Dan Pink and Dr. David Sirota (author of The Enthusiastic Employee) have applied a tremendous amount of practical research to identify intrinsic motivators.

Sirota has condensed their findings into an acronym called PEACAM: 

  • P= sense of purpose;
  • E= equality and respect;
  • A= achievement and recognition;
  • C= camaraderie all round;
  • A= autonomy and trust;
  • M= mastery of required know-how.

All these items “light fires within people.”  
PigeonJust think of Pavlov’s famous pigeon experiment, where he trained pigeons into a particular behavior pattern by feeding them grain seeds every time they moved in the desired direction. In Pink’s terminology, he used “now-that” motivation rather than “if-then” bribes. In other words, when the pigeon did the right thing it was rewarded: instead of being told if it did the right thing then it would get that (known as bribing). Once the pigeon reached the desired behavior, it self-sustained that behavior due to its own inner satisfaction of doing the right thing.

Examples of the right work behavior include on-time performance, meeting realistic objectives, taking initiative, being reliable, and so on. Of course, everyone at the outset has their own value set on all these items, dependent on temperament, upbringing, and prior job experiences. We should take those into account when applying PEACAM.

We can use Pavlov’s approach with team members who are within the normal, value-set range. If we coach or mentor people properly at the outset, we can use one or more of the PEACAM factors mentioned earlier, whenever people behave in the right manner by using “now-that.” All being well and with patience, they will reach the desired level. Once that happens, we let the person self-reinforce himself or herself. Over time, this will produce highly motivated people not looking for incentives (or bribes) to do the right thing.

Naturally we have to overcome three things within ourselves to do this: 1) Develop greater patience to motivate people, 2) Instill a willingness to positively rather than negatively reinforce people…something hard to do when our parents didn’t do it, 3) (the biggest obstacle of all) Give up Executive Bribes.Executive incentives have reached such levels, legitimized by paying their people incentives, that they will have to forgo these excessive bribes. Instead, the money can be plowed back into the enterprise to foster continued growth, prosperity and everyone’s overall well-being.