Does Behaviour Follow Reward?

Mark McGregor

How do you get people excited about process improvement? A stick and carrot is probably not what you need. Mark McGregor looks at the surprising truth about motivation.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of discussion on blogs, LinkedIn and Twitter about employee engagement. Many it seems are constantly wrestling with how to get and keep people involved in process improvement. Moreover, one of the biggest challenges people talk about is how to get people motivated when it comes to new ways of working.

I always remind people that "behaviour follows reward". If you put in a new system, but continue to measure people and their performance against old measures, then you will continue to get the old behaviours. It is one of the reasons that some time ago I started to ask the question, should HR take the lead when it comes to implementing new processes, systems and working practices? Of course they may not seem the obvious lead, but if reward systems and job descriptions, along with appraisals fall under their remit, who better to lead such changes?

Simple then? Well not really. If you are a fan of Daniel Pink (and I am) then you may have read his latest book "Drive" which looks, among other things, at what motivates people. One of the examples he discusses is the question of "reward and motivation" – he concludes that such approaches worked for manual tasks, but can actually be detrimental for knowledge based tasks. With thanks to John Bates of Progress Software for making me aware, you can see a great video of Dan talking about behaviour and motivation here. It is a fun video and should educate and entertain in equal measure.

The challenge in the video, and with many other people’s view is the assumption that reward equals money. This is where I agree and disagree with Dan in equal measure. I agree that money can not only fail to motivate in some situations, but can actually demotivate people. However, I disagree that rewarding people is not the best way forward. It is all about finding the right rewards.

Positive rewards will in general keep people moving forward toward a desired goal or state. But, did you know that negative motivation will actually cause people to begin their movement or change faster? The challenge is how to apply a small amount of negative motivation (read fear!) to get people started, and then switch to positive motivation to keep them moving. When done correctly and with the right motivators and rewards, this is highly effective and is the basis of many personal change programs.

Perhaps what we need to do is better understand motivation and be more creative with the concept of rewards. It may be money, it may be extra holiday, or other perks with an associated financial cost. In many cases, however, sometimes things can be as simple as saying thank you, or providing recognition. Gamfication is seen as playing a part here with the idea of rewarding with badges or labels for high performers – again these may play a part.

The "secret" is to ensure that you take the time to understand the individuals you are trying to motivate, or whose behaviour you want to change. Once you understand this, then choose rewards that are appropriate to them. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to assume a one size fits all approach, or worse still that they are motivated by the same things as you! Very often the most effective rewards are among the cheapest; "thank you" very often goes a long way, and an occasional pizza at lunchtime can work wonders too.

We’d love to hear what you think. What rewards have worked for you? And what has not?!


Originally published on MWD Advisors blog. Reprinted with permission.