Many articles about incentives, rewards, recognition, and positive reinforcers reflect naiveté about human motivation. Have you been confused by the language discrepancies regarding these terms? 

Incentive versus reward

 Behavioral recognition or supportive feedback cannot be an incentive. An incentive is a stimulus event that precedes a behavior to announce the availability of a reward following the occurrence of a designated behavior. “If you submit a practical safety suggestion” (an incentive), “you’ll receive a baseball cap with our safety logo” (a reward).

 Give words of appreciation and supportive (or rewarding) feedback frequently after desirable safety-related behaviors are observed.  A supervisor might observe an employee doing something for safety and then offer sincere words of appreciation. Since this recognition is given with no if-then contingency announced, it is obviously incorrect to call such recognition an incentive. It is a now-that reward or supportive behavioral feedback.

Behavior versus performance

 Safety incentive and reward programs can be behavior-based (a positive consequence is given for a behavior or a process that supports safety) or performance-based (the outcome of a safety process or performance). Safety incentive/reward programs based on performance (injury rate or TRIR) were once common practice due to convenience and initial perceptions of success.

 But performance-based rewards encourage underreporting of injuries, especially when based on the performance of a group. Peer pressure discourages reporting and stifles discussion and analysis of close calls and minor injuries.

Bottom line: Performance-based safety incentives are strictly reactive and have undesirable side-effects. Behavior-based safety incentives and rewards are proactive--if implemented correctly--and can have beneficial effects.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

 If a reward is given as an extra bonus to motivate behavior, it could be perceived as a payoff for desired behavior. The motivation might be considered “extrinsic.” 

If the so-called payoff is removed, the frequency of desired behavior will likely decrease, possibly to a level lower than the frequency observed before an extra reward was added to extrinsically motivate more behavior. But in fact, rewards as an extrinsic consequence can enhance intrinsic or internal motivation.

 Confusion abounds regarding the term “intrinsic” when referring to human motivation. Some discuss intrinsic motivation as a subjective and unobservable person-state—implying an individual is driven from within and is self-directed or self-motivated. For example, when people feel competent at performing a task they believe is worthwhile, they are likely to be self-motivated.1

 Behavioral scientists avoid concepts that cannot be objectively observed. So they use the term “intrinsic” differently when discussing human motivation. Motivation is connected to behavioral consequences -- people act to gain a positive consequence or avoid a negative consequence. Behavioral consequences are extrinsic or intrinsic -- extrinsic when added to the situation, as when the performer receives a reward or penalty following a particular response; intrinsic when natural or integral to the ongoing behavior. Consider the inherent rewarding consequences when reading a book, watching T.V., playing a video game, or hitting a golf ball. This intrinsic motivation is behavior performed for the natural or intrinsic reinforcers inherent to the task.

The term “reinforcer” is appropriate here. A reinforcing consequence maintains or increases the frequency of the behavior it follows. Rewards do not always influence the frequency of behavior. Some authors (Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink) assert rewards usually do more harm than good. Although seemingly believed by many safety professionals, this is a myth.2

Do rewards stifle intrinsic motivation?

 We’re not talking here about a natural consequence that motivates the occurrence of behavior; rather an extrinsic consequence added to increase motivation. Does this extra reward stifle a person’s self-motivation? It could if the person perceives the reward as a ploy to motivate behavior that s/he is already self-motivated to perform.

 An incentive/reward contingency can be an insult. An extrinsic consequence can depreciate self-motivation, but not necessarily. Perceptions are personal. Even if self-motivation takes a hit following an if-then reward, the target behavior will likely increase while the extra consequence is available.

 The critical question: How can an incentive/reward program be implemented to increase the perception of self-motivation and decrease the perception of extrinsic control?

It’s in the delivery

 Your reward should not be announced or delivered as an attempt to motivate behavior or to provide a pay-off for extra effort. Your positive consequence should be perceived as only a token of appreciation to pinpoint observed behavior that supports safety and to recognize those who perform that behavior.

 When perception of extrinsic control is nonexistent or minimal, participants are likely to attribute the behavior to their own self-motivation. Then the desirable behavior is viewed as self-directed and apt to continue when the incentive/reward program is discontinued. Substantial research has shown that perceptions of personal competence fuel self-motivation, especially when the noted behavior is regarded as worthwhile or purposeful.1 

 Of course, all safety-related behavior is meritorious, so accompanying the delivery of a reward, recognition, or supportive feedback with words that reference its injury-prevention potential assures a boost in competence and self-motivation.


1. Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum; Deci, E. I., & Flaste, R. (12975).Why wedo what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books; Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002).Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

2. Cameron, J., & Pierce, W.D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64(3), 363-423; Carr, C., Mawhinney, T., Dickinson, A., & Pearlstein, R. (1995). Punished by rewards? A behavioral perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 8, 125-140; Eisenberg, R., & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 54(11), 1153-1166.