One challenge of talking about motivation is that different people use different labels to refer to different kinds of motivation. So when someone is talking about motivation, it is often hard to figure out what they are referring to, let alone understand their meaning. This is a shame because incentive programs depend on leveraging motivation to focus our employees’ behavior in the direction of increased safety. Without intrinsic motivation, incentives are just a gimmick. That is where the idea of flipping the program comes in.

Three types of motivation

There are three types of motivation that are important to consider when developing safety incentive programs.

First, we have motivation that is internal to the safe behavior we want the employee to adopt. This is the most effective kind of motivation because it is the behavior itself that motivates the employee. We don’t need to add the gimmicks; we just need to make the value clear and set up an action loop that converts the behavior into a routine habit. This is the core principle of intrinsic motivation.

The second type is motivation that is internal to the employee but has to be synthetically connected to the safe behavior. An example of this is competition. An employee may be competitive by nature and motivated when you set up a competition for who can best engage in the safe behavior. But the safe behavior itself is not the motivation.

This opens the program up to two potential limitations. One, the employee might take shortcuts in order to win the competition. This means the employee is still not safe, and possibly creates a culture in which shortcuts are acceptable. Another limitation arises when the employee finds a more visceral way to satisfy their motivational need. There may be plenty of opportunities to engage in competition in the workplace — why do they need to participate in the safety-oriented program to get it? This motivation is often referred to as intrinsic, but it is really something fundamentally different. And consequently, it is less effective as a motivation for safety.

Finally, we have external motivation. These are incentives that have nothing to do with the activity and are used as an add-on to create value that is not otherwise present. This is the least effective type of motivation, but unfortunately external incentives are the most common when it comes to safety incentive programs. They are the easiest to design and implement, often available as an off-the-shelf turnkey program. An example of this is the usual gift card/t-shirt promotion. The problem with external motivation is that they imply, correctly or not, that there is no internal value of the safe behavior, so the only reason to act safely is to get the gift card or the t-shirt. Even when it is personalized or customized specifically for a worker, it is still just a gewgaw and has no direct link to a safe behavior. Experience over the past decade has provided us with clear evidence that external motivation has a devious influence that degrades the intrinsic and hurts the development of sustainable, long-term safe behavior.

Something similar occurs when we pay students to get good grades. They start seeing education as something you do for money, not for the love of learning. Longitudinal studies show that students in these programs lose much of the intrinsic love of learning they had at the start. In the short term, their grades may go up, but as soon as the program ends, their grades go down, often lower than when the program started. We see the same thing with workplace safety incentive programs, although there have been few rigorous longitudinal studies. Even if the incentives are carefully selected to be something that the employee values, and the link to the safe behavior is made salient, these still engage external motivation. Employees habituate to the reward, and we need to increase it over time to keep it effective. If and when the incentive program ends, use of the safe behavior plummets.

Four simple steps

So what does this tell us? Ideally, we should develop safety programs that evoke motivation that is internal to the safe behavior itself. Then we use external incentives as a temporary boost during the onboarding process. I recommend to the companies that I work with a simple four-step process:

1. First, it is critical to highlight the motivation that is internal to the safe behavior. Why would your employees WANT to know more about it? Of course, we hope this would emerge naturally. Isn’t safety inextricably linked to family life, playing with your kids, weekend sports, and other important aspects of our lives? But unfortunately these are not enough. We need to seduce our employees with curiosity or novelty. Sometimes we need to create what is referred to as a hero’s journey narrative.1

2. Second, we identify the internal drivers that are unique to each individual. This is where we can effectively bring in competition, collaboration, status-seeking, and other personal motivations. But it is important to link them to the internal task motivation rather than use them in isolation.

3. Third, we create an action cycle that links the task-internal motivations to the personal ones. My go-to process for this is BJ Fogg’s behavioral model.2 The model is too involved to go into detail here, but it has proven time and again to be reliable and effective.

4. Then we leverage the external motivations for situations that require a quick but strong burst of motivation that is not always possible with internal motivation. This is typically necessary during the onboarding process where the inertia of change threatens the program before it has a chance to get off the ground. It is important to gradually withdraw these external incentives before they have a chance to diminish the value of the internal motivation.

The takeaway here is quite simple. Resist the urge to take the easy way out that an externally motivating, off-the-shelf incentive program represents. Flip your incentive program and start with intrinsic motivation. Take some time to identify internal motivations in your safe behavior and create an action cycle around it. The results will soon be clear.