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Incentives May Not Trump Culture


Why did your incentive program fail?  Maybe because you focused the program on “sacred values.”

Company/corporate culture is a hot discussion these days.  From @zappos (everyone take a drink) and Netflix – every company wants to be the “it” girl of corporate culture.  Culture drives engagement they say.  Much corporate treasure is spent to reward behaviors that drive the culture the company has, or hopes to have.

But recent research may show that your reward program has less effect on culture than you think, and in fact, may be wasted money.

An article entitled “When the brain refuses to take the cash” was published on Futurity.org yesterday that discussed an experiment where they looked at people’s brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were offered cash incentives to change a belief.   What they found was pretty interesting from a reward and recognition point of view…

“Our experiment found that the realm of the sacred—whether it’s a strong religious belief, a national identity or a code of ethics—is a distinct cognitive process,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University and lead author of the study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
Sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, the study shows, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

Their conclusions – rewards may not affect behavior when that behavior comes from a “sacred belief.”

“Most public policy is based on offering people incentives and disincentives,” Berns says. “Our findings indicate that it’s unreasonable to think that a policy based on costs-and-benefits analysis will influence people’s behavior when it comes to their sacred personal values, because they are processed in an entirely different brain system than incentives.”

A Little Word Substitution Game

Let’s just take their words and play a bit – change “national identity” in the first pullquote to “corporate identity” (and I’d even stretch that to “corporate culture.”)  And then let’s just change the word “public policy” in the second pullquote to something like say, “company values” or company rules, or just go with company policy.

Now think about what the research may be hinting at…

Offering incentives to change how people act in relation to rules/policy in a company where the rules are based on corporate culture/identity won’t be very effective.

Hmmm….. what to do, what to do….

Back to the article:

“Organized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms,” Berns says.

Rules and social norms.  Where have we heard that before… Oh yeah, recognition works on the rules and social norms.

When we have rules (the stated behaviors we want) and we recognize people for doing those behaviors we create social norms.  Therefore, recognition is a better way to reinforce a culture and over time, reinvent it at your company. 

Remember… incentives are “do this then that” awards and recognition is after the fact – not a promised contract for change.

All Culture Change Starts With an Existing Culture

If you are seeking to change your company’s culture remember you are already starting with a culture – a set of beliefs held by your employees. 

Simply adding incentives to change behavior may not work if the change you’re trying to reinforce with the incentive is contrary to a company sacred value – the participant (employee) won’t feel it the in the reward center of their brain.  I’ve set this before – incentives are choice architectures – and this research would seem to say that when incentives are used to change strongly held beliefs they don’t register in the choice part of the brain – therefore – no real “choice” is made.

Now – let me head off some of the haters.  I’m just wool-gathering here – playing with an idea so don’t point out that the research really didn’t say what I just concluded.  I know that.

What I am suggesting is that this research could be interpreted as programs designed to either create, change or reinforce behaviors around culture in an organization should be looked at from a recognition standpoint – not necessarily an incentive point of view.  Especially if the change goes to core beliefs and values in an organization.

If you run a boiler-room – don’t think running an incentive to be more “touchy feely” is going to work.  You’d be better off, over time, recognizing and rewarding behaviors than trying to motivate them.   Remember – those are two different things.

What do you think?  Am I stretching this a bit to make a point or do you think there some some gold flakes in here worth mining?


Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence