[Trick or Treat] The Trouble with Incentives

As a senior at Tigard High School, the Prom Queen was selected by a canned food competition between the three high school classes. The goal was to incent students to both show school spirit and bring in canned foods for people who were less fortunate and needed the food to eat to live.

Both competitive and adventuresome sorts, my class’ winning solution was to tin-cup class members for cash, and then ditch school to go buy canned foods at discount retailers that sold marred (but perfectly eatable) canned goods at a discount.

And that little story tells you a great deal about incentives: you frequently get something different than you intended.

These last three months is end of year evaluation time for many folks, and along with  a look backward, it’s also a look forward with the development of goals and objectives for the upcoming fiscal or calendar performance period. And the very development of those goals will be to incent people to do some things, and frankly ignore doing other things.

Chip and Dan Heath (authors of the book Made to Stick) said this about incentives in Fast Company: “Incentives are dangerous, and not just because people game them. They often yield collateral damage.”

I still have the scars on my back from a colleague at one firm at which I worked who clawed her way to her yearly bonus off the backs of her peers. Since playing well or even playing nice was not part of her bonus – but jamming projects through was – she ended up getting paid well and earning the enmity of most people who could afford to keep distance from her.

The thought behind incentives is simple: if you reward someone for doing something they will do the job, and perhaps do more of it.

In short, if it works for Fido, it should work for Phil.

The problem is that humans are wired somewhat different, and apart from the ability (though Fido probably knows how to game things too) rig the system, it turns out the the theory behind incentives as a way to motivate people may be badly flawed.

Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, has set his sights on motivation and what – well, motivates us, in his latest book Drive. Pink’s point is people – specifically scientists know about the detrimental effects of incentives remains outside of what most managers and HR professional practice and deploy. The better way, Pink argues, is to create workplaces where things such as autonomy, mastery of craft and purpose can flourish because it turns out those factors do motivate people.

Here’s Dan from in a compelling video presentation this past year at the TED Conference in Long Beach.