Thought Leadership

Incentives are the nuclear option

You may reach your objective, but at what cost?

November 14, 2012
I got this e-mail from a reader who had just read the October 31st PENCIL WHIPPING blog:

Hey thanks for the pencil whipping article, I sent it out to our community of practice for OBS (observation-based safety) the response was great. Your right, admit what you already know. We for reasons that were explained, but not listened to, have suspended our incentive program at our site, a nice lunch and raffle once a month, (suspended not removed… “this was the not listened to part”) and there went our participation. Our site has also purposely removed “fix it” items from our observation sheet as we strongly believe that the feedback is the most important part of our behavior change. Did we shoot ourselves in the foot?

Do you think that the common work force sees “fix it” items tied to observations as an incentive, or just what should get done because someone handed in a sheet with some tally marks?

It got me thinking that Incentives are the “nuclear option”.  You get what you pay for, but at what cost?

Drops happen after incentives get rolled back.  Think about it ... during the incentive, the reason your people were doing the observations were, well, for the incentive.  Take it away and you take away their behavioral justification to act.  No surprise there. 

Also, think about what was incented.  You get what you pay for.  You were paying for turning in observation cards, not for actually doing an observation or giving a peer feedback.  So what do you think some of the cards were?  Pencil Whipped.  Worse, peers did not get the critical feedback about their safe and risk behaviors.

So your upset about the 45 percentage point drop in participation after you suspended the incentive program?  I was just with a company that is owns one of the best behavioral safety programs in their industry (according to the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies' Commission on Behavioral Safety) . They were getting over 150 observations a month without any real incentives.  Then they started work for a client who had tons of incentives for nearly every employee behavior.  When the work was over these new incentives went away.  Their participation dropped to around 40 per month. 

But they stuck to their basic plan, redoubled their discussions with work crews about the importance of giving peer feedback and posted graphs, honest ones showing the drop, and told the crews that this is an indicator of how much they cared about each other.  Then the next month they got better on the graph.  This naturally reinforced the worker's observations.  Next month better.... It took them six months to build back to their baseline of 100+ but they've done it.

So no, you didn't shoot yourself in the foot.  You’re rehabbing from an addiction.


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