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Incentives Don’t Work If Behavior Isn’t Decision-Based


Changing behavior is tough. 

As the New Year kicks off many of us have set goals and objectives for 2012 and are working hard to make them realities.  Chances are we set up incentives for ourselves… save $100 and then treat yourself to a $20 gift.  Or go to the gym 5 days in a row and have a small sundae from McDonolds.  We do these things to give us a reason to change our behaviors.  But it’s still tough.

One of the least obvious and possibly the most important reason changing behavior is tough is because we don’t really understand just how much our environment – and the routines we impose on them – influence our choices.  We think behaviors are in our heads.  We think our behaviors are decisions we make and therefore we can control them.  We believe behavior is all about will power and choosing to do something different.  Not always.

In fact, many times we aren’t really making decisions about our behavior – we’re often blindly following the cues our environment gives us based on our historical experience.  Think about that for second.  In many cases we’re really not “making decisions on our behaviors” – which is where incentives focus – we’re simply following a script we wrote a long time ago.  We are not really thinking and deciding – and when we aren’t thinking – incentives are useless.

Examine your day from the time you get up.  Most of us go through a very pat process of getting ready to go to work.  Coffee, shower, shave, etc.  Then hit the highway, first stopping at Starbucks for that 1,000 calorie “coffee flavored milkshake” that holds up the line for the rest of us who only want real coffee (hint, hint – go inside to order that, please!)

But what if you took a different route to work?  Would you still get the Starbucks?  Probably not.  Interrupting the routine – changing your environmental cues – will change your behavior.

It’s What You DO

Routines, and the environmental cues that reinforce them, are key to helping change behaviors.  You’d be surprised how potent they can be.  Would you eat stale popcorn?  Some of you would.  Check this little tid-bit from the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss

We go to the movies and automatically purchase a giant drum of buttery popcorn – and once the habit is formed, we’ll eat the popcorn even if it tastes bad, Wood has found.
In a study she coauthored that was published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, moviegoers were given fresh or stale popcorn to snack on while watching trailers.
People who were avid popcorn-eaters ate the same amount of stale popcorn as fresh: They evidently were snacking mindlessly. In contrast, those who didn’t have a movie-popcorn habit ate less stale popcorn than fresh.
“Once these habits become cued by the environment,” Wood says, “they tend to continue whether people are enjoying them or not.”
Wood suggests devising new activities to link to our environmental cues.

Switch Performance by Switching the Environment

Changing the environment not only applies to your personal lives but to your professional work as well. If you want to get greater performance out of your staff think of ways the environment may affect how well they perform.

  • If you want to increase the number of ideas in a brainstorming – do the brainstorming in an environment that is comfortable for your employees.  Don’t do it in your office – that’s your “power space” and employees may be intimidated.  Do it in their space – where you’re the stranger (hopefully not) and where they are comfortable.
  • Move out from behind your desk when discussing performance issues.  Don’t set it up like a judge/defendant – make it a discussion not an inquisition.
  • Enter the building from a different entrance if you can.  I’ll bet you run into different people and different ideas.  Urge your staff to do the same.
  • Sit at different places in the company cafeteria to generate new conversations and connections.  Eat at different times to see different people.
  • Hold meetings in non-meeting venues to increase creativity.  Holding a meeting in an artist’s studio changes the conversation.
  • Is there any wonder that some of the most innovative companies have the least restrictive dress codes?  Yeah – that tie is stopping you from thinking weird and different.  It really is.
  • Have a disconnect between departments – move their desks together.  Studies show we have a harder time NOT working with people we sit closer to.  “Automajically” we become co-workers, not “Bob in Accounting.”  You’d be surprised how much the process can change when you have to sit next to the person that actually uses your work output as their work input.

Don’t Think It’s A Motivation Issue

I’ve said this more times than I care to count… don’t assume it’s a motivation problem. 

Assume competency and desire first – assume there are other issues.  If our behavior is driven by the environment incentives will be less effective since much of what we are doing is driven by non-decisions – in other words – habits. 

Incentives are decision architectures and therefore only work if the person is actively making a choice between about their behavior and the incentive.  When the environment and the signals associated with it drive our behavior incentives are pretty much a waste of money.

Fix the environment first – then look to incentives.

Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence

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