Some workplaces I have visited use so called ‘scratchies’ to encourage and reward ‘safe behaviours’. Managers typically hand out such lottery tickets to employees who report hazards, come up with improvement ideas, or have filled out a risk assessment card in an exemplary way. Some workplaces have been known to give out rewards to drive more generic performance, such as giving everyone a toaster when passing 500 days without a Lost Time Injury. Reward schemes like these seem to be widespread, even though the size, value and frequency of the reward may vary. One variation I recently heard of was a mine site where employees exhibiting desired behaviours were put in the draw for relatively high value prizes, such as iPads, TVs and even cars.
If rewards are frequent, punishments may be an even more used tool to ‘get things right’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve engaged with people who believe that someone needs to be punished if there has been an accident. ‘Clearly someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do!’ And then there was a manager who told the guys in the workshop that if they had an accident they would have to have a ‘bloody good excuse’ for why he would let them stay on the project. But the use of punishment isn’t limited to operational management, for example the legal system in general uses the fear of punishments to deter transgression.
The use of punishments and rewards to shape behaviours rests on systematic psychological studies, primarily from within the Behaviourist tradition. At the centre of Behaviourism is a theory of how living organisms learn. Its basic tenet is that subjects adapt their behaviours as they discover how the environment responds to their actions. By manipulating incentive systems and providing timely reinforcements, or punishments, it has been shown that it is possible to ‘program’ behaviours. For example Frederic Skinner, one of the founders of Behaviourism, used rewards to train pigeons to play Ping-Pong. Similarly, James Watson taught a young boy (Albert) to stay away from white rats by startling him with a loud noise every time a white rat was presented. Unfortunately the fear generalised, and Albert developed distress in the presence of several kinds of white furry animals and objects.
The use of trinkets to cajole people into fulfilling certain behaviours, or using punishments to deter, of course comes at a cost. There is the direct cost of the enticements, and there are outlays involved with getting rid of experienced employees (and hiring new ones). Whether or not there is a positive cost benefit ratio I have no idea. However, there are many other, much more problematic, and dire, costs attached to both measures.
First, the effectiveness of external motivators attenuate over time. Once people learn what can be expected, the power of rewards dies off. Drug takers will look for heavier drugs and doses, adrenaline junkies will look for something even more thrilling, and organisations may move toward rewarding ever more basic actions, or having to up the ante significantly to maintain the excitement.
Second, in projects where rewards are connected to the number of days without injury it is not uncommon that once there has been an injury – once the streak has been broken – several other injuries will be reported in quick succession. And there are many other cases of how connecting rewards to safety performance, or using coercion and threats, drive communication and honesty underground and foster secrecy and manipulation around safety related information.
Last but not least: Rewards make use of people’s self-interest. And punishments target fear. When organisations partner with greed and fear to increase predictability and control, it comes at the cost of more noble traits such as compassion, care, creativity, cooperation, honesty, and generosity. As self-interest and fear are cultivated, engaged and encouraged throughout the organisation, we simultaneously damage and destroy the skills, insights and wisdom that can help us adapt to an unknown, complex and dynamic future. The result of an organisation increasingly empty of passion, will, vision and creativity, is a workplace in which few care about anything but themselves – a consequence not of individual choice, but from a lack of opportunity to do anything else.
Is there another way to proceed? Is it possible to switch from this hegemonic control and constrain version of safety, to a more collaborative order to achieve good outcomes? Is there a way we can evoke and engage people’s innate capabilities to contribute and be creative? Can people become an asset to overcome challenges, instead of a problem to control? Are there other drivers than coercion and competition? Can we make things work using intelligence rather than brute force? I believe so.
If you want people to care about safety, don’t incentivize it. Reward and punishment schemes around safety turn safety into a commodity to be traded, manipulated and externalised. Instead, give people the opportunity to create and contribute. Ask what they think about 500 LTI free days achievements, and what safety goals they would like to achieve. Engage (yourself and the people you want involved) in conversations of how they would like to make things better and what can (and cannot) be done. What frustrates them? What would help getting the job done? What solutions have they come up with that the rest of the organisation can learn from? Then you work together, or give discretion, to make those things reality. The result is likely to be an organisation in which it is not only more fun, rewarding and interesting to work, but also an organisation that stands a better chance to develop innovative solutions to problems they perhaps didn’t even know about.
Note: Merriam-webster.com defines cost as something that is lost, damaged, or given up in order to achieve or get something