The unpredictability of rewards

353456725_7530d205c5Photo by jenster181

This post is the fourth post in a series of posts I am writing on lessons about managing people from the book Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (for more post in the series, see 1, 2, 3).

In the additions to the 2nd edition Ariely added a chapter called Reflections and Anecdotes about Some of the Chapters. In it, he describes the idea of the schedules of reinforcement, which is a term coined by the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. In simple terms, it means that when and how often we reinforce a behavior can have a dramatic impact on the strength and rate of the recurring appearance of that behavior. We would expect that a constant, fixed reward system will create a more recurring behavior. But what the experiments actually suggest is that variable reinforcements actually are more effective at creating a high steady rate of behavior.

And that got me thinking about how we reward and recognize employees. Do we do it once a year or once a quarter? Do we do it during a quarterly report or an annual meeting of the employees where the employee of the quarter is declared?

We know that predictable rewards are not as effective as unpredictable rewards, but still, most companies and managers stick to a schedule of predictable rewards. Why? Well, my guess is that it is just easier. As a manager, I don’t need to think and worry about my employees all the time. Does it really matter if I do in once every quarter for an hour or if I do it 30 times over the quarter for 2 minutes each time? But, the fact that it is easier does not mean that it is right (like most conventional wisdoms). We know nothing worth gaining is ever gained without effort.

A few posts ago I wrote about an important principle in feedback called – consistency. The same words could be used to describe the right approach for rewards and recognition:

Consistency – feedback should be given all the time. Not at a predetermined time once a quarter. But all along the year. This is where I disagree with Bratz. The question is not whether you had one meaningful conversation with your manager once a quarter. The question is how often during the quarter did you have meaningful conversations with your manager. Conversations that create value for you and are not done just to fill some kind of form or requirement from HR. If constructive feedback is given consistently, the answer will be all the time. And if it is done all the time, there is a high probability that we are dealing with a good boss.

How unpredictable are your rewards?



One Response to “The unpredictability of rewards”

  1. Derek Irvine Globoforce Says:

    Again, Elad, excellent. As you say “when and how often we reinforce a behavior can have a dramatic impact on the strength and rate of the recurring appearance of that behavior.”

    Just as employee John does not necessarily demonstrate those behaviors we particularly desire on any set schedule, so too can our recognition of those behaviors be limited to a pre-determined schedule. Catching John in the act of doing something good — and reinforcing that behavior right then or as soon after as possible — is the far more powerful means of communicating what we want to see from John in the workplace in a way that he will remember and want to repeat it.

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