Is Bribing Employees Ever OK?

December 16, 2012

bribeIs it ever a good leadership to bribe your employees? I recently asked that question in an online leadership class. We got into a very interesting discussion that highlighted the difference between four words that are often confused by managers. Those words are bribe, incentive, reward, and reinforcement. The world will not come to an end if these words are mixed, but since they represent different concepts in motivation theory, it would be wise to use them correctly.

All four of these words have the connotation of influencing people to do the things we would like to have them do. The distinction is that two words typically apply before an action is taken while the other two words usually apply after the action.

The word bribe is a well-known and loaded word. In common usage, it means we are offering people something they want in pre-payment if they will do something that they would not normally do. For example, in some cultures it is expected that airline passengers going through customs will give the customs officer some kind of “tip” in order to process their bags without hassle. That is a bribe, although we would never use the word in front of the customs officer. We have all heard stories of individuals arguing with a policeman about a potential speeding ticket and trying to offer some kind of bribe to have the ticket waived. These individuals often find a bribe is not only unsuccessful, it can lead to dire consequences.

The second type of pre-agreed payment is called an incentive. This is where a leader will challenge people to do more than expected, and they are promised a specific payment if they do it. Usually with incentives, there is no stigma associated with doing something wrong; it is merely an encouragement to do more of what is right.

Sometimes the incentives are built into a compensation plan such that they really don’t appear as separate incentives, but certainly have that same feel. For example, commissions paid for certain levels of sales are types of incentives. They are a promise made ahead of time to pay a certain amount based on the employee performing at a certain level.

When employees perform better than expected, for any number of reasons, leaders often give them extra compensation after the fact. These payments are called rewards. Often, the compensation is a token amount in recognition of the actions by the employee and are not intended to fully pay for the extra effort. Instead, they are a kind of thank you for going the extra mile.

The area of rewards can be a minefield, and there are numerous books on the potential mistakes when trying to reward people. For example, if a leader rewards an individual for a job well done, often other people feel slighted because they expended as much effort or provided more benefit to the organization than the person being rewarded. There are numerous other problems that can come up that can be devastating. It is not uncommon for well intentioned supervisors to create ill will by applying rewards poorly.

A final category is called reinforcement. Like rewards, reinforcement is something that is usually applied after actions have been taken. Reinforcement is more general than rewards. It seeks to make people feel appreciated and thanked for the things they have been doing. Usually reinforcement takes the form of verbal or written praise as opposed to tangible gifts or direct compensation. Reinforcement takes hundreds of different forms and can be as simple as a “thank you” or as complex as a group-wide celebration.

The words discussed in this article are sometimes used inappropriately. One might refer to what was intended as an incentive as some kind of bribe. Or someone might think of a form of reward as being simple recognition. It is instructive to realize there is a difference in behavior modification between promising an incentive ahead of the act versus providing a reward after the act has been completed.

To be an accurate communicator, it is important to use the right words for each application. If one of the four words described above is used in the wrong context, it can send mixed signals about a leader’s intent. That will cause a lowering of trust within the organization, and it will eventually show up on the bottom line.
Be careful when using these words to use them accurately. The concepts involved in behavior modification are critical to having people experience higher motivation as a result of reinforcing actions by leaders. They are powerful concepts, but they can be easily misused.

Creativity: 7 Pathways

September 16, 2012

I read a quotation in a student paper a while ago that was interesting, “Demanding creativity is like yanking on a seed to pull out the flower” (by the famous author “unknown”). The optics in this quote really work for me. I have been referred to as a creative person at times, and I even won an award for it once, yet if you stand over me with a scowl on your face, my creativity will dry up faster than a drop of water in a red hot frying pan. Most people have a creative side that can be brought out if properly nurtured.

The benefits of creativity and innovation are well documented. Unfortunately, while all leaders yearn for higher creativity, their behaviors often squash it. This analysis provides some pathways to encourage more creativity that are simple and powerful. Here is a list of seven ways this can be accomplished:

1. Let people play – Natural creativity is closely linked to the concept of play. Just observe children who are about 3 years old, and you will see some of the most creative people on the planet. Reason: The world has not yet taught them that certain things are impossible. They see clearly with their imagination.

2. Give them the tools – We typically use “Brainstorming” to get creative at work, yet the technique has been so watered down over the decades since it was invented, it has lost most of its potency. Put Brainstorming on steroids using Morphological Analysis, which is a technique where you put dissimilar concepts on two axes and then brainstorm ideas at the intersections of the resulting matrix. This forces the mind to conjure up connections that we habitually ignore.

3. Do not legislate – You cannot force creativity. By trying to nag people into getting creative, you can actually reduce the chances for novel ideas. Most people are more creative at specific times of the day. Allow people to pick the times when they experiment with new ideas.

4. Create an environment of innovation – This is done by encouraging people to tinker and rewarding them when they come up with unusual approaches. If leaders in the organization overtly promote creative behavior, then it will spread.

5. Measure it – The old adage of “what gets measured gets done” is true for innovation. The measure can take the form of documented new procedures, patents, new product announcements, and many other forms. I once knew a manager who found a creative way to measure creativity. He placed a cork bulletin board in the hall with a fence around it. The sign on the board read “Sacred Cow Pasture.” Then there was an envelope full of silhouette cows made of different colored construction paper. Workers were encouraged to uncover a sacred cow, write it on the cut out and pin it in the pasture. The management team would then set about eliminating the sacred cow.

6. Reward good tries – Not all ideas are a smashing success from the start. Leaders need to encourage people to try, even if there are failures along the way. The failures are really successes, because they uncover other ways it will not work. This points the direction to what eventually does work. Thomas Edison had to find nearly 10,000 things that did not work before he figured out how to make the incandescent lamp a reality. That kind of deep curiosity and dogged determination needs to be rewarded. Impatience and a short term mindset are the enemies of innovation.

7. Brag about your innovative culture in public – When leaders point out the great creative work going on in all areas of the organization, not just in the lab, people tend to get more excited about it. This leads a dramatic increase in innovation similar to spontaneous combustion in a pile of tinder.

The secret to innovation and growth is to develop a culture where creativity is nurtured rather than forced. Follow the seven tips above, and soon your organization will be known as one of the most innovative ones around.