Our Employees Are Addicted to Rewards

Paul Hebert Engagement and Satisfaction, Paul Hebert, Recognition, Total Rewards

We can prattle on and on about whether intrinsic or extrinsic rewards are best. We can cite Dan Pink and we can cite the Incentive Research Foundation. We can talk all we want about whether incentives are great or not. Those are beliefs, opinions and interpretations.

What isn’t an interpretation is that one of the main components of the brain’s reward system is the dopamine system. Dopamine’s release in the brain is linked to an increase in euphoria, added energy, and an increase in focus ability. Research has shown that dopamine is one of the key factors that make cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines so addictive.

Rewards Cause Dopamine Release

A friend and fellow incentive program designer, Kurt Nelson (@whatmotivates on Twitter and his company The Lantern Group) is deep into this stuff. In fact, when the idea occurred to me that because of the relationship between dopamine and rewards we may be creating award addicts, I consulted my Oracle (google) and lo and behold – Kurt’s paper “Motivation and the Brain” popped up.

At first, I almost overlooked it thinking it said, “Pinky and the Brain” (but that’s a post for another day.)

The net-net is this from Kurt’s paper:

“Extrinsic incentives have been shown to increase dopamine and blood flow in the ventral tegmental and nucleas accumbens areas of the brain (Knutson, Adams, Fong, & Hommer, 2001; Zald et al., 2004).  The increase in dopamine transmission is higher in the anticipation phase of the reward than in the subsequent consumption phase. “

Keep that in mind when you contrast that to this research (again from Kurt’s paper – crimmeny – he’s doing all the work on this post…)

“Research done in the 1950’s by Olds and Milner (1954) found that animals would respond and learn to activate mechanisms in order to receive electrical stimulation in septum areas of the brain referred to as reward centers.  Rats in this study would receive the electrical stimulation by pressing a lever. Some rats were recorded pressing the lever over 2,000 times in an hour and continuing with this behavior until they could no longer press the lever due to exhaustion. (emphasis mine)  Further research indicated that the electrical stimulation caused the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine that resulted in the reinforcement of the behavior (Kalat, 2004).”

Now, I’m guessing you don’t have any salespeople running around at the point of exhaustion trying to close that last deal and get the reward… we are a bit more “evolved” than that.

However, my thinking is that an overreliance on incentives within an organization may increase the dopamine release for most of the program participants and that if, and when, the company decides to reduce or eliminate the incentives, there will be a decrease in the amount of dopamine the employees get.

I don’t think we’ll find employees huddling in corners with drool hanging from their mouths or vomiting in the hallways due to withdrawal symptoms – but I do think that there could be (will be) a rebound effect that may well take the form of lower engagement, lower satisfaction, lower morale.

It won’t be that anyone will be able to pinpoint it as a decrease in dopamine, but in my mind it probably is related.

I only put this out for discussion as many companies are looking to reduce costs and are moving away from incentives and/or reducing their reliance on them. As the number and value of non-cash and cash reward programs are reduced, we may see such wholesale withdrawal. Maybe, just maybe, the recent free-fall of engagement and satisfaction scores is less a function of the economy and more a function of the average employee not getting their fix of dopamine through reward programs.

Something to think about. On another note, keep those incentive sales people away from our playgrounds! Wait – the teachers are the ones with the sticker charts and SRA reading boxes (I, by the way, was the first in my class to get to the Gold level – just sayin.)

What say you – are we addicted to rewards?

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.