Incentives work, right?

Have you ever noticed that when performance issues arise a common first resort seems to be, 'How can we incentivise them?' This is even though little thought appears to be given as to whether incentives are appropriate let alone whether they actually work as intended. The prevailing management myth says people need incentivising otherwise you will never get people to give of their best. In reality the opposite is true. According to Frederick Herzberg what actually releases people's motivation is quite different, to which we shall return.

So incentives must work? Mustn't they? It of course depends what you mean by work and actually who is getting the pay off? Are incentives just providing the manager with comfort that they are 'doing something'? Releasing the motivation, the 'want-to-do' that exists within everyone, might mean giving the situation further thought and taking different action, which may require more effort.

But first, why the pigeon? Well. It is a passing reference to the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner did experiments studying the effects of conditioning behaviour on rodents, pigeons and primates. Some people have used this work to justify the use of financial incentives to increase human performance. There has been much debate on the validity of making this connection. Not sure I'm convinced.

Perhaps more directly relevant was the work of F.W. Taylor that he reported in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management, allegedly based on his famous pig iron loading experiments. Essentially Taylor suggested that workers are primarily motivated by pay and probably only pay. Perhaps giving rise to many people's idea that they should use incentives like performance-related pay, which seems to have become the prevailing management 'wisdom'.

The slight problem with the case Taylor made is that research, reported in a paper by Charles D. Wrege of Rutgers University and Amedeo G. Perroni of University of Alberta, revealed that Taylor had been "economical with the actualité ". They were more direct, 'An investigation of that story reveals it to be more fiction than fact'. Work study experiments on loading of pig iron were carried out, though not by Taylor himself. According to the research, over time Taylor embellished the results, of others at Bethlehem Steel, and the story itself apparently to support his case that pay for performance worked. Oops.

So if Taylorism and Skinner's pigeons might be suspect where can you turn for something more reliable and, more to the point, effective? For that we need to go back to 1959 and The Motivation to Work by Frederick Herzberg, et al, which is still well worth a read today. Basically Herzberg proposed that in human motivation at work there are hygiene factors (the dissatisfiers) and motivational factors (the satisfiers). I have summarised these in the diagram below: 

Motivation is widely misunderstood and done badly. I suggest that motivation means want to do something. And we are all born with it!

It is necessary to understand that you, me and everyone else do things for their own reasons not for the reasons of leaders or managers. It is possible coerce or incentivise people to take certain action. However, in those circumstances the reason they take that action is because they are avoiding pain or going for a reward. They are not interested in the work itself or, worse, the customers.
Using coercion or reward usually has unintended consequences. Take for example financial incentives for bankers to increase the number of mortgages they provide. They take ever greater risks and you might end up with a global recession. Sound familiar?

Herzberg's work showed that with these environmental or hygiene factors no amount of additional salary, for instance, will increase motivation beyond a certain level. However, a low salary compared to the market place will demotivate. Motivation on the other hand was found due to factors such as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility and advancement and personal development.

If, as a manager, you are looking for higher performance from your team there are human factors that are critical. It might mean that you have to think afresh about what it means to release the motivation in the team. You might also have a look at the way the work is done and your policies, but these two are topics for another day.