To get a degree in psychology, you have to spend a fair amount of time learning about pigeon behavior. While pigeons don’t look like people, a pigeon brain learns the same way yours does. You can teach a pigeon to do a lot of great stuff if you only feed him when he does what you want – it’s called “conditioning”. The bird pushes a lever, he gets a treat. Pretty soon he’s pressing that lever whenever he’s hungry. In theory that’s how incentive programs are structured in the workplace. Your team members do things that benefit the organization, so you reward them with praise, money, or other incentives. Unfortunately the workplace is a far cry from the structured environment of the lab, and if you are not careful with the application of your reward strategy, you can end up with something called “superstitious conditioning”.

The story goes that a researcher automated his lab completely and then left for the weekend with the pigeons happily pressing levers and getting treats. When he returned on Monday he found his pigeons acting nutty. Some were turning in circles, others were banging their heads against the side of the boxes, and still others were pulling out their feathers. Stunned, he went to investigate and discovered that his automation had gone haywire and treats were being distributed randomly. Whatever the birds happened to be doing when the treat popped out, they started repeating and this increase in frequency made it more likely that they would be doing just that thing when the next treat appeared. Take that principle and apply it to people and you find the process that makes someone wear their lucky hat on game day.

As a manager you have many tools at your disposal to “condition” your employees to do their best. Rewards can include raises and bonuses or more intangible benefits such as flexibility or recognition. Whatever method you use to reward people, the key to a successful strategy is consistency. If you praise someone to the sky for staying late one night to finish a project, and then fail to comment on it when their colleague does the same, your team members will start to wonder what it takes to get noticed. If you give one person a week off for landing a big client and then give someone else a $10 gift card, you will definitely be buying trouble. So how can you make sure you are rewarding effectively and consistently? Here are some tips to streamline your incentive program:

1. Know Your Limits – Before you give out your first “atta-girl”, you need to know what type of reward structure your organization allows. Does HR have a stack of gift cards you should use? Can you give comp time? (Comp time is short for compensation time, which is when someone gets extra vacation time if they work extra hours or achieve certain goals.) Do you have a bonus budget? Make sure you don’t rock the boat by promising things you can’t deliver.

2. Tie Rewards to the Team Vision/Mission – Every team should have a stated vision and/or mission statement that encompasses the key success metrics of the group as it relates to the success of the organization. For a great tutorial on creating a team vision, read this article. If a team member goes above and beyond to hit a target that ties into your team vision, you should definitely recognize it.

3. Praise in Public – Regardless of whether you are going to offer an additional tangible reward, you should make a point to recognize a team member whose actions you wish to reinforce. Send a message to the team letting them know that Bob threw a Hail Mary and saved a big client. This helps your team know what behaviors you like and want to see repeated.

4. Keep a Log – Before you reward an action, record it in a log. Include the date, employee, and what they did. This allows you to line it up with the other times you have recognized great work in your department and you can easily see whether you are being consistent or whether something is out of line.

At times you may want to implement specific rewards over a short period of time. For example if you have a new sales target to hit which requires every person on your team to complete five extra meetings each month, you may want to give a bonus to each team member who achieves this goal for the first three months. If you are creating an incentive program with limits, make sure you document the requirements and communicate them in advance. Rewards, especially monetary incentives, must be specific and consistently applied or you will tank your team morale instead of boosting it.

It goes without saying that if you have consequences for behavior you DON’T want to see, those should be applied with an equivalent level of fairness.

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