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A Scientific Method of Rewards

October 19, 2005
Related Topics: Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits

A few years ago, management consultant Aubrey Daniels stood before members of the National Association for Employee Recognition and made a bold suggestion: Companies should eliminate their recognition programs.

    His point is that many organizations design and implement their reward and recognition programs so poorly, they anger rather than motivate workers and can cause more harm than good.

    In truth, Daniels isn’t against employee recognition. Far from it. He advocates providing positive reinforcement every day. But he believes that companies should approach rewards and recognition scientifically, with criteria for how to earn it and measures for employee progress. Daniels is a psychologist who has spent almost 30 years coaching organizations about how to use B.F. Skinner’s research into shaping behavior to motivate employees and outperform competitors.

    "The problem with reward and recognition as it’s typically done is that it tends to violate everything that we know about positive reinforcement from a scientific perspective," Daniels says. "It’s not immediate. Most of the time there is a poor connection between the behavior that generated the recognition and the recognition itself. It’s delayed. And it’s not specific."

    Daniels didn’t begin his career as a coach and adviser to corporate America. After earning his doctorate from the University of Florida, he served as chief psychologist at the Georgia Mental Health Institute and later as director of psychology at Georgia Regional Hospital-Atlanta.

    But in the early 1970s, he started a firm with NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton to prepare the so-called unemployable for the workplace. He also began consulting to businesses about how to improve performance.

    Then in 1978, he began what now is known as Aubrey Daniels International, a management consulting firm that works with organizations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, DaimlerChrysler and NASA.

    He also has written the best-selling books Bringing Out the Best in People, Performance Management, Other People’s Habits and the forthcoming Measure of a Leader, which applies scientific principles to leadership.

    "I consider Aubrey a living legend and the father of positive reinforcement theory and application," says Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. and author of the best-selling 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. "He has created the ‘science of reinforcement’ and has helped countless organizations systematically apply its proven principles."

    In his books, Daniels says he is on a crusade to stop the use of what most people consider "common sense" when it comes to recognition programs, calling it by definition "unreflective opinions." He advocates looking at data for proof of what works and what doesn’t.

"People have ideas about how to praise people and how to treat people every day at work, and much of it is based on their own personal experiences rather than than any systematic ways of approaching them to sort out fact from fiction."
--Aubrey Daniels

    "People have ideas about how to praise people and how to treat people every day at work, and much of it is based on their own personal experiences rather than any systematic ways of approaching them to sort out fact from fiction," Daniels says.

    He criticizes programs--like employee of the month--that have unclear criteria for winning and limit the number of winners. Instead, he says, organizations should pinpoint the behavior they seek, establish ways to measure it, provide feedback to employees on their performance and reward the behavior when it is demonstrated.

    Discount-store chain Dollar General Corp. turned to Aubrey Daniels International to tackle high absenteeism when attendance at the company’s distribution centers fell to 84 percent.

    "If you decide not to go, most of us think, ‘I have a day off,’ " says Jeff Sims, senior vice president of Dollar General. If people decide not to go to work, they feel like they’re getting a free play day. They get something good immediately--a chance to goof around. Nothing bad comes of it until later, and maybe not even then.

    For example, the boss might tell them in their performance review that they miss too much work, but that review could be months off. So Dollar General introduced a point system, put employees into teams and drew a racetrack on the wall with each team represented by a car.

    Members of the team could earn points by arriving on time. But even if they arrived late, they could still earn points for their team four other ways, such as by returning from breaks on time. Each day, their cars advanced by the number of points earned.

    "And we talked to all of our supervisors and got rid of the punishing behavior of yelling at them if they were late," Sims says. "We started thanking them for coming to work and then saying, ‘We really need your help to get those points tomorrow morning.’ "

    After a certain number of laps, the team with the most points got to choose the food served at a celebration in the distribution center. "They get the honor of selecting how everyone celebrates," Sims says. Within two weeks of the program’s introduction, attendance had skyrocketed to 95 percent.

    Sims credits Daniels with teaching him how to manage.

    "I thought I was pretty bright," says Sims, who has an MBA and a doctorate. "I thought, ‘I know what management is all about.’ Throughout my career I bloodied my nose and skinned my knees, and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.

    "When I heard Aubrey speak about consequences and why men and women do what they do and how do you alter what they do, because if you can’t alter that you can’t alter results, it struck a chord. This isn’t a fad. It’s a science of management."

Workforce Management, October 10, 2005, pp. 44-46 --Subscribe Now!

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