Start at the Wall

OutletWhen we think of changing behavior we typically think of rewards and recognition.  We think of compensation schemes and bonus structures. Motivation programs provide participants with a choice.  Do “x” get “y” – or not do “x” and don’t get “y.”  You can also turn that equation around and say – do “x” and get thrown in jail (a negative consequence – it’s not negative reinforcement but that’s for a different day and probably just for psych majors anyway.)

The point being is that incentive and reward programs provide participants with a choice to make.  The idea is to provide an incentive (positive or negative) that “motivates” them to choose the path you feel is desirable.  Pretty simple.

Except when it isn’t.

Unintended Consequences

I’ve probably hit on this theme a few times here at FOT simply because it is the single biggest problem with most incentive programs.  Designed to do good – they end up doing bad.  It isn’t easy to sift through all the possible ways a participant in a program could “game” the system – yet it is a critical step in the process.

Bad Incentive Design In Action

Yesterday in  USA Today, this research was released and the upshot was:  laws banning texting while driving actualy may prompt a slight increase in accidents.

Here was the thinking process.

  1. Texting causes distracted driving.
  2. Distracted driving causes accidents.
  3. Ban texting.
  4. Less distracted driving.
  5. Less accidents.

Except It Caused More.  Why?

The supposition is that people moved their phones lower in the car to hide them from the police when they were texting and therefore increased the amount of time they were not looking at the road.  The incentive (do x and go to jail) actually increased the problem they were trying to solve.

Change the Environment

Not all change is due to motivation. Change can also be a function of the environment and the process. What if we looked at the texting and driving issue from this perspective…

  1. Texting causes distracted driving.
  2. Distracted driving causes accidents.
  3. Make phones unable to text while in motion over a certain speed.
  4. No texting in moving cars.
  5. Less distracted driving.
  6. Less accidents.

This time, the change in behavior is a function of the environment/capabilities of the phone.  Not the behavior of the person.  For the record – these services are available for smart phones today.  It could be a simple matter of making them standard features on all phones.

Where Can You Apply This In Your Business?  Simple.

Look at all the processes that your people need to go through to get work done. How many of the processes actually decrease effectiveness and are really barriers enacted years ago for issues that no longer are issues?  What “behavioral” issues could be solved by changing the environment the person is in?  Or is it lack of communication between groups?  Move the groups closer together.  Don’t run an incentive based on number of meetings and emails to increase communication.  People getting expense reports in late?  Check the process and the paperwork – is it really necessary to do it the way you have it structured?  Is there an easier way?

Start At the Wall

Being the techno-geek in my house, I get all the questions about computers, electronics, etc.  I’m the one they call when something won’t boot, start, turn on, or turn over.  My first question always being, “Is it plugged in?”

I always start at the wall and work my way back to the user.  Don’t assume the problem is in the user before you eliminated all the other issues that could affect performance.  If you can fix the environment and the process, you may just find you don’t NEED motivation programs.

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Very nice analogy!
    It really helps looking at ‘problems’ in an alternative way.

  2. working girl says:

    Very true, Paul – unless you can control people 100% (which you usually can’t) they will sneak behind your back if they disagree with your rules or processes, which may make the problem you’re trying to avoid even worse. I wrote a similar post on positive v. negative incentives that might interest you:

  3. Great post, Paul. It’s like I say, one of the biggest motivators for employees is a boss who removes obstacles for them so they can get their work done more efficiently and effectively.
    Of course, having a boss that appreciates and recognizes you for doing the right things after the fact doesn’t hurt either!

  4. Rex says:

    This is a great example of ‘Shaping the Path’ that is laid out in the book ‘Switch’ by Chip & Dan Heath. Thanks for the real world example!

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