Beyond Attractive Incentives

Alfie Kohn doesn't like incentives, and I often agree. One of his most recent essays critiques employers offering financial incentives to employees who adopt healthier lifestyle habits and behaviors. In short, he doesn't believe it will work.

His two primary objections are that (1) deeper psychological or sociological issues often are the true cause of these unhealthy habits, and (2) extrinsic motivation doesn't usually last in the long run. No argument from me on either front, but I do think #2 should be considered a constraint to address as opposed to a reason for not trying.

Let's say you offer a $50 reduction in monthly health premiums to individuals who quit smoking. Cash is the initial motivator, and it is indeed extrinsic. At some point, the monthly savings may no longer have its initial motivational appeal. So before the extrinsic incentive loses all its value, the wise employer would help individuals identify and connect with intrinsic motivators that may be surfacing as a result of no longer smoking: feeling better overall, able to engage in physical activities with family and friends, less labored breathing, etc.

So if you offer coupons to customers or discounts to members you need to understand the potential shelf life of the incentives. But with an intentional strategy you might be able to replace some of the initial attraction to save money with an internal awareness of other value being received.


David M. Patt, CAE said...

In the case of assocition membership, do discounts suggest low value or low demand for services?

Most people join associations for benefits - both tangible and intangible. While they may enjoy early bird discounts and special member rates (they really like those), few people join because of cash incentives.

Ellen said...

I agree with David, and like Jeffrey, I think about how incentives usually don't work, but for different reasons.

Why create incentives? What about simply rewarding good/desired behavior? Child psychologists will tell you that's the only way to raise children the right way.... Are adults too "sophisticated" for such a thing to work?

I don't think so. Rewarding the behavior you want from anyone is a good thing, isn't it?

Then why don't we do it? For example, some organizations punish their star performers by loading more work on them -- usually the tasks that the lower-performing staff members can't or won't do.

Healthy employees rarely get rewarded for not "spending" their sick time. If you have a use it or lose it policy, then employees are actually encouraged to call in -- even if they're not sick -- just so they can feel as though they're getting something back. So while some employees use every bit of the offered sick days (while healthy employees are taking up the slack back at the office), the healthy employees, who usually cost the organization less in health care premiums and less in lost work time, are actually punished for their good behavior.

So rather than find ways to "incentivize" employees "out of" their bad behavior, I think we should spend more time dreaming up ways to treat our valuable employees better.

The same goes for our members. What are we doing -- other than handing out plaques and saying thanks -- to show our healthy members, our star performer-volunteers -- how much we value them? Doesn't it make sense that if we treat our members really, really well, that people won't need to be handed incentives to join?