I get frustrated some times as I peruse the google alerts I’ve set up for incentives, rewards, recognition and other topics related to designing and delivering great influence programs.  Mostly because I continue to see bad advice being doled out over and over again.

Specifically, I see incentive “professionals” telling potential clients that good incentive design requires that awards be tied to results.  How else can you prove and ROI?, they state.  While developing an ROI model is difficult when the outcomes from the incentive are not tied to specific metrics, like say, increased sales... it is not impossible.

If all you focus on is the “result” you will have bad program.  #Fact.

Case In Point – Cheating and Teacher Incentives

Dan Ariely recently provided his point of view on the scandal that is unfolding (or unfolded) in Atlanta city schools where 179 teachers and principals have confessed to cheating to increase scores on student test scores.  Dan is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and wrote the books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.  He’s the bomb when it comes to behavioral economics and how we respond to different incentives and influence tactics.

I’ll let you read the full article here... but the points from his post that I think are critical to remember are:

"But having this single measure for performance placed so saliently in front of them, and knowing it’s just as important for their school and their students as it is for their own reputation and career, most likely motivates some teachers to look the other way when they have a chance to artificially improve those numbers."


"The notion that we take something as broad as education and reduce it to a simple measurement, and then base teacher pay primarily on it, has a lot of negative consequences. And, sadly, I suspect that fudging test scores is relatively minor compared with the damage that this emphasis on tests scores has had on the educational system as a whole."

Now think about the various things in your own company that you have incentives layered upon (or you are planning to layer in an incentive ) – are they not complex? 

Do the outcomes you want require people to do multiple activities and be skilled at multiple behaviors in order for those outcomes to be realized or improved?

Selecting a single measure – or a single outcome – influences people to put way too much emphasis on that outcome – the “what” – and not enough attention on the “how” and “why.”

The “what” becomes the goal - then come hell or high water your participants will achieve that outcome. 

Ethics be damned.

Focusing more on behaviors means that your audience will be learning and practicing the things that will eventually lead to the outcomes you want.  And those behaviors will begin to be internalized – reducing your need to run the incentive in the future.

And you’ll worry less that someone will go rogue in the organization in order to hit their “numbers.”

And... by the way... this issue is compounded when the award value is too rich for the behavior/outcome you're targeting.

Do I have to say “Wall Street” again. 

“The More You Know.”