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Incentives and the Art of Changing Behavior

October 29, 2002
Related Topics: Change Management, Recognition, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits
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For many well-meaning managers, getting employees to change their behavior isa frustrating, challenging, confounding task. Employees often don’t see thevalue of performing their jobs differently or taking on new roles, or they don’ttrust the reasons for change in the first place, says Chris Butler, president ofThe Performance Engineering Group. "If they don’t support the change, theywon’t alter their behavior and the project can’t succeed."

Whether it’s getting people to use a new software system or changing thecompany’s approach to knowledge-sharing, employees want to see immediate andobvious personal payoffs before embracing a new system. The quickest way to makethat link is to tie a reward and recognition program to the appropriateperformance. "Adults are like children. If you reward the behavior you want tosee, it will get repeated," says Diane Allessi, director of trainingdevelopment at the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C. For maximumbenefit, the reward and the acknowledgment have to be immediate and public, shesays. "By recognizing employees in front of their peers, it not onlyreinforces the behavior in the individuals, it telegraphs to everyone aroundthem that this is the conduct you expect and value."

It can be a casual approach, in which managers make a point of praising thosewho perform the new behaviors, or a formal incentive program that rewardsemployees with gifts every time they perform a new task. The important thing isto send the message to everyone that they will benefit from supporting thechange initiative, Butler says.

To most effectively use reward and recognition to support a changeinitiative, define the new behaviors in as much detail as possible, Allessisays. For example, you can’t just say that service reps should be friendlierto customers. You have to identify the characteristics of that behavior, such asgreeting customers warmly, asking if they have any other concerns, or addressingthem by name. Once you know what the behavior looks like, translate it in detailto employees and then reward them on the spot for doing it, she says.

"Employees need clarity about what’s expected of them," says JulieBacon, vice president of marketing at Bravanta, an incentive and recognitioncompany in San Francisco. But they also need incentives to get started. Ifemployees know they will receive something of value when they perform a newtask, they will become personally invested in the initiative. "The rewards andrecognition program gets people motivated," she says.

"Once they incorporate the new behavior into their routine, they will beginto see the intrinsic value of the change," says Cindy Hubert, director ofknowledge management and connected learning for the American Productivity andQuality Center in Houston. "Eventually the tangible reward becomes lessimportant and the new behavior becomes inherent to their job performance."


 The biggest mistake managers make is rewarding the wrong behavior.

The biggest mistake managers make is rewarding the wrong behavior. "Theyfocus all of their attention on those who won’t change, and ignore those whodo," Butler says. "That sends the message to employees that you don’tvalue the change, and it can cripple your project."

Butler creates computer-based training courses called QuickLearns, whichinclude short videos of experts performing specific tasks. He was hired tovideotape a group of test technicians at an aerospace company performingproduction-line tasks, but they refused, fearing that the training would deprivethem of their job security, and even threatening to bring in a union lawyer.

Later, when Butler found a night-shift technician who agreed to do the video,he made a point of presenting him with a $100 gift certificate in front of hispeers, and asked the technician’s supervisor to do the same. When the originaltechs saw the payoff, they realized that their negative behavior had backfired,Butler says. And now, as the company considers layoffs, they have new reason tofear for their jobs. "They saw that a willingness to cooperate and shareknowledge was valued and rewarded. It’s a lesson they won’t soon forget." 

Workforce, November 2002, pp. 80-82 -- Subscribe Now!

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