Gift cardsare a common element of today’s safety incentive programs. We have many varieties and flavors: retail (e.g. Target), entertainment (e.g. the local steakhouse), and general purpose (e.g. Visa-branded). We have individual-based or team-based performance metrics. We have big gifts and small gifts. They can be personalized according to each recipient’s taste or one-size-fits-all.

Extrinsic motivation

Gift cards fall into the category of extrinsic motivators, which have been around since the first hunter left food out to trap his prey. We get our kids to do their chores by offering them an allowance. We bribe students to read during summer vacation with the promise of a reward. It seems like a win-win.

But in the long term, there is evidence that extrinsic rewards do not always work as advertised. The biggest problem is a process called externalization. Extrinsic rewards are very good at capturing our attention. Unfortunately, they do too good a job. When we start associating a behavior with an extrinsic reward, it breaks any link there might have been to intrinsic motivators. In other words, when we start engaging in a behavior for an extrinsic reward, we lose track of the fact that it is “the right thing to do” and “good for its own sake.”

In the long run, this has several detrimental consequences. We see a shift in our workers to focus just on the metrics connected to the reward. Usually, this means they prioritize quantity over quality or appearance over substance. If I am behaving safely to get a gift card rather than because it is the right thing to do, then I only need to do the safe acts that are connected to the prize. I can forget about the others. It can also lead to dishonesty; there seems to be less of a concern for ethics when the behavior becomes an economic transaction.

The gamified gift card

So does this mean we should abandon gift cards?

Not at all.

It just means we need to change the way we design the program. Instead of externalizing the behavior, we want to internalize the gift card. We can do this with gamification. Many game elements can be added to a gift card that connect to intrinsic motivation.

Curiosity: Have you ever heard a riddle you couldn’t get out of your mind until you solved it? That is the power of the intrinsic motivation of curiosity.

How can we add curiosity to a gift card?

What if instead of awarding the gift card at the end to the winner of the safety contest, each employee or team gets a gift card at the start? Then they unlock the value of the card incrementally by solving questions about safety. This only leverages curiosity if you come up with good questions for them to answer, but the benefits are worth the extra time. The gift card is their playing token as well as their reward. By linking the card to a custom URL, this can all be Internet-based to reduce cost and processing overhead.

Mystery: Another intrinsic motivation is mystery. We can keep the amount and/or the vendor of the gift card secret until it is unveiled. This works because it is hard to think about engaging in a behavior for the reward if you can’t visualize what the reward is. This can’t be framed as if it were the company playing favorites by giving better rewards to employees it favors. It has to be transparent — such as allowing the winner to spin the “Wheel of Fortune” to see what he/she won. A $10 gift card to the grocery store? Or maybe a $100 dinner for two at the French Bistro downtown? Gift cards are perfect for this variation because there are so many ways to customize them.

Surprise: Another intrinsic motivation is surprise. Similar to mystery, if the employee doesn’t know where or when a reward will be won, he/she can’t externalize the behavior. The spontaneous safety award works this way. We can offer the gift card as a spontaneous reward when an employee is engaged in a safe behavior above and beyond the call of duty.

Dynamic rewards: When rewards are on a regular schedule and of a standard size, we get bored of them. They get less and less effective over time. We can shake up the connection by changing these dimensions. Instead of a monthly winner of a $50 gift card, we can have the award period last one week, then three weeks, then two weeks. And the dollar value can change as well. $30 one week and $75 the next.