If you set goals too high, employees may give up trying to reach them.
As a consultant who frequently helps companies
incorporate safety into their performance
management systems, I have long been an
advocate of clear performance goals. Clear
performance goals, whether
focused on safety, productivity,
or any performance metrics, give
employees a direct look into management priorities
and objectives and allow them to track progress in
their own performance. When employees reach for
and achieve performance goals, they feel more satisfied
and are more likely to persist when faced with
tough workplace situations.
However, performance goals must be designed
properly or they can do more harm than good.
Goals should be challenging enough to require
real behavioral change but not so difficult that
workers give up and don’t bother to try. For
any kind of performance management system,
the metrics and thresholds selected for performance
goals must be SMART â€” specific,
measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.
Employees need to know specifically what
metric(s) they will be measured by and what
the thresholds are for achieving the incentive.
For example, the foundation of a safety
incentive program cannot be based on vague
metrics such as “number of injuries” without
specifying whether this includes only OSHA
recordable injuries, trips to first aid, or other
Balancing the number of metrics is critical
to an effective safety program. Having
too many can have a negative impact on productivity
levels because employees may be
unable to concentrate on each one and still do
their jobs. On the other hand, when incentive
metrics are defined too narrowly, they can
cause inattention blindness to other important
behaviors. Employees can become so focused
on not violating a particular safety rule that
they forget about general good practices like
housekeeping, equipment maintenance or
general vigilance for unexpected events and
One of the challenges of being specific is
to make sure employees see their own obligations
as equal and fair compared to their
coworkers. This becomes an issue when some
jobs have more hazards or safety requirements
than others. Often the best way to resolve this
is to invite employees to participate directly
in the goal-setting process.
The threshold for achieving an incentive
has to be objectively measured. Telling your
delivery drivers to “drive safely” is not helpful
if it is impossible for you to know how
they are driving. They need to know what
constitutes “safe driving.” Is it a particular
speed limit, or is it following a comprehensive
set of defensive driving guidelines covered
in a certification course? Without specifics,
your employees are likely to ignore the
incentive program because they don’t know
what is expected.
When goals are not measurable, it is possible
for supervisors to apply thresholds subjectively, thus opening
themselves to accusations
of playing favorites
by conveniently “not noticing”
violations of preferred
employees. Perceived fairness and
objectivity are key components of
performance management systems,
especially when dealing with safety and
other less quantitative domains.
The threshold for achieving an incentive must
be realistic. If the current OSHA recordable incidence
rate for a team of employees is 20 per year,
setting the incentive at zero or one will not be
effective because employees will assume that they
can never attain this level and so will have little
motivation to try.
Unattainable thresholds encourage two types
of unethical behavior. First, employees are motivated
to hide violations to avoid losing out on an
incentive. Hidden violations may seem innocuous
because you don’t have to pay for unreported injuries.
But small injuries have a habit of growing into
serious injuries later, with greater medical costs.
Second, when employees find themselves in a situation
where a small violation may be the safest
way out of an unforeseen situation, they may use
a more risky approach to avoid losing out on the
But you don’t want an incentive to be too easy
to attain either. The purpose of safety incentive
programs is to motivate employees to improve their
performance. If the goal is set too low, you will get
levels of performance employees could have delivered
even without the program.
The metrics used as the basis for safety incentive
programs must measure behaviors that really
affect safety, or employees will see through them.
Employees’ performance improvements are greatest
when they recognize the importance of the goals
and become committed to attaining them. This can
lead employees to pursue the safety metrics for
intrinsic reasons, even if they do not earn tangible
The opposite is also true. When employees pursue
goals they view as irrelevant, their performance
is directed exclusively toward earning the reward.
This creates a transactional frame of behavior and
decreases employees’ intrinsic motivation or loyalty
to management objectives. When the incentive
is removed, so is the increased effort.
must be set
time frames. At the
start of the year, an
annual incentive may be
so far off that workers may
not be motivated to increase
their effort. Using annual injury
rates may not affect the behavior
of seasonal workers because
they won’t be around to earn them.
Similarly, if incentives use too short a
time frame, employees may ignore long
term safety issues because they are unlikely
to cause a problem until after the incentive has
Some concerns about
Even with SMART incentives, there are other
challenges that can reduce the effectiveness of
safety programs. In general, when management
commits time, attention, and resources into safety,
it improves the safety climate. Developing a comprehensive
safety incentive program is a good way
to demonstrate commitment, which can have positive
implications on behavior. But some negative
consequences of safety incentive programs include
- The emphasis on specific safety behaviors can
focus employees’ attention too much on quantitative
performance and away from the intrinsic motivation
to work hard and achieve a job well done.
- Quantitative performance goals have in some
cases been shown to decrease job satisfaction,
hurt interpersonal relations among workers, and
increase employees’ levels of occupational stress.
- When incentives are set competitively, they
can create a culture of unhealthy competition
where employees are less likely to assist each other
if it could take away from attaining incentives.
These cultural issues are not guaranteed consequences
for any safety incentive program, but must
be kept in mind to avoid damaging your overall
All of this
is not meant to
scare you away
from safety incentive
programs. You need
to develop the metrics,
thresholds and other components
of a solid program
with these challenges in mind.
And never be afraid to ask for
help when you get stuck.