External Motivation: Three Questions
to Ask When Rewarding Learners

Here are the three most important considerations when designing a rewards system to reinforce skill application on the job.

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Using External Motivators to Maximize Skill Application

Employees attending training courses are driven to learn primarily by one of two types of motivation. Some are motivated internally (such as from a natural interest in the subject or a sense of accomplishment). We say these people are self-motivated. Others are persuaded to learn as a result of some external inducement (such as a pay rise or threat of demotion).

Every manager wishes they had a team comprised exclusively of employees who are in the first camp —employees that are self-motivated. The inescapable fact is that even if most employees joining an organization had no need of external inducements to perform at their best, many would still leave through frustration. Many move on because of the barriers put in their way to doing the best that they can. Faulty equipment isn't repaired, pointless bureaucratic requirements waste their time, their supervisor is often unavailable —these are just some of the reasons for employees giving up.

There are other reasons why our workplaces are not filled with self-motivated individuals. Some of these reasons are:

  • substandard recruiting practices in which people are poorly matched to existing jobs
  • widespread skills shortages leaving large gaps in the organization's talent pool
  • previously self-motivated employees had motivation beaten out of them by poor management practices
  • macro-economic events such as a downturn in the economy and major layoffs

In addition, where significant change is being introduced, a proportion of previously self-motivated employees will resist the change for a variety of reasons. (To find out more about how to deal with resisters effectively in your change program, refer to our guide and workbook, Managing Change in the Workplace.) Whatever the reasons for the less than optimal motivation level of employees, managers and trainers will need to use a mix of appropriate external motivators if low-motivation individuals are to learn new skills and apply them on the job.

These external motivators will need to be applied well before the training program begins. If employees are not primed to learn before they enter the program, trainers are already starting from a handicapped position. Trainers can do their best to interest and motivate trainees; however, they cannot work miracles. And even in those cases where trainers succeed in lifting the motivation level from a low base, if managers pay lip service to the new way of working, such newly found enthusiasm will be very short lived.

How can an organization use external motivators to inspire employees to learn and apply the new skills to their job? At its core, applying the skills means employees behaving in new and different ways compared with how they behaved before they entered the training. The short answer to our question is that managers and trainers can motivate by linking these newly expected behaviors to the organization's system of rewards and recognition.

The conduit for this connection is the organization's performance management system. What does this mean? It means achieving this linkage through three key activities:

  • including the expected behaviors and associated objectives in each individual's or team's goals
  • assessing the individual's or team's performance against those objectives, and
  • recognizing and rewarding people and teams according to the assessed performance

When people are rewarded for behaving in a certain way, they tend to repeat that behavior. Psychologists call this effect "positive reinforcement". The corollary to this is "negative reinforcement"; extinguishing a particular behavior through punishment or the threat of punishment. Psychologists have found that positive reinforcements (rewards) are more efficient at encouraging and sustaining a particular behavior than negative reinforcements (punishments). So, a sales executive is more likely to use a new sales technique when their manager praises them for using it, compared with when they are yelled at for not doing so.

Some incentive schemes fail to have the desired consequences because the negative reinforcements are stronger than the positive rewards. For example, in one organization following a training course on a new data management system, an employee bonus payment arrangement was having little impact because the employees' supervisor was deliberately ignoring employees using the new data entry system.

Poor incentives design and implementation comes at a cost. Overlooking the key motivational forces at play or choosing incentives poorly can result in these negative consequences for your organization:

  • increased remuneration and rewards costs with no subsequent improvement in employee behaviors or results
  • dissatisfied employees with reduced motivation and higher absenteeism and attrition

Factors to Consider When Using External Motivators

If your organization is to avoid these negative repercussions, managers need to consider the options carefully and not respond with a knee-jerk reaction. In deciding how to reinforce wanted behaviors and results, there are some important questions you need to ask and answer. Here are the three most significant questions you need to consider.

  1. Reward Individuals or Teams?

    If your training program is at all about achieving results through a coordinated effort, then rewarding the team as one indivisible unit is clearly your best option. Programs that come under this umbrella include project management for project team members, process improvement, new product development, and so on.

    If the program is designed to impart skills that do not depend for their application on the cooperation of peers, then rewarding the behaviors and results of individuals is more prudent. Courses that are about project management for project managers, fault diagnosis and machine operation are prime examples of this kind of program.

    A challenge arises when team incentives are outweighed by individual rewards. In one case following a training course on creativity, employees were encouraged to share ideas by the offering of a new award. The prize consisted of a plaque presented to the team that turned their idea into a viable and profitable new product. The innovation program in the end faltered because the earlier "Employee Suggestion of the Month" scheme, with its cash prizes, was left running in parallel with the new scheme.

    If you are going to offer team incentives, make sure that you look closely at what rewards currently exist for counterproductive individualistic behavior. Either abolish or modify these conflicting individual incentives before proceeding with your new scheme.

  2. Reward with Monetary or Non-Monetary Incentives?

    Many managers ache endlessly over whether to offer financial incentives for expected behaviors and results and, if so, how much. Although many managers still believe that employees are predominantly motivated by money, the research in fact shows the opposite. This is not to say that money is not important to employees. It is. Studies into employee motivation over the last few decades consistently reveal that employees expect fair remuneration for their efforts. Where they perceive that their pay is not fair, they will either leave the organization or "check out" each time they "check in".

    This disengagement from their employer and their job means that they will put in the minimum amount of effort that they believe they can get away with. Beyond paying a fair rate, there is much debate about the impact of various types of financial rewards on motivation and performance.

    The upshot of this is that whatever non-monetary rewards you are thinking about offering, these will have little to no effect if the base pay rate is well below the market rate or what is considered fair by employees. If your organization is paying at or above what is considered a fair rate and it does not have much surplus cash to spend on financial incentives, the message is that there are many types of non-monetary incentives that will work as well as, if not better than, offering more money. Prime external motivators for high levels of performance include recognition by peers and higher-level managers, a feeling of social belonging, clear and challenging goals, and having the right tools and resources.

    If your organization decides to offer financial incentives, there are a variety of options available to it. These range from distributions from a variable pool of funds to fixed amounts calculated by a preset formula. Incentives can be paid as a permanent increase to base salary or as a one-time bonus (often referred to as an "at-risk" component).

  3. Reward Goal Achievement or Behavior?

    Where there are clear and objectively measurable targets (or SMART objectives), rewarding goal achievement is a "smart" option. On the other hand, where the focus of the training program is on encouraging specific kinds of employee behaviors, you have the option of rewarding the demonstration of such behaviors. These kinds of behaviors could include:

    • collaboration
    • innovation
    • prioritization
    • strategy formulation
    • leadership

    and other such behaviors.

    Some organizations reward the expected behaviors for a fixed time period only. This limited period allows just enough time for the wanted behaviors to become the new "normal". Where organizations reward behaviors instead of results, the aim here is to focus people on the specific behaviors that will form the new organizational culture. The thinking here is that putting the spotlight on results to begin with only encourages people to go for short-term gains at the expense of the behaviors required for the longer-term success of the organization.

    For some organizations, even though their leaders aspire to rewarding results, they realize that their organization is insufficiently mature or that they change their direction so often that it is not possible for them to define fixed, measurable objectives. For these organizations, when it comes to monitoring performance, the focus can be directed to demonstrated behaviors. In some organizations, these behaviors are called "competencies". Examples include "strategic thinking", "innovation", "teamwork", "business acumen", and so on. Yet other organizations reward both goal achievement and demonstrated behaviors. Some of these organizations keep the incentives separate for these two dimensions while others combine the two into a composite score using a preset formula.

Your choices in constructing rewards to motivate your employees following training are many and varied. To choose a set of external motivators that is appropriate to your organization's specific circumstances, you need to consider whether you will reward individuals or teams based on their behavior or results. You will also need to decide between offering monetary or non-monetary rewards, or a combination of both. Answering these questions well and implementing your scheme faithfully will see your organization well on its way to getting the most out of its training efforts.

Further Reading:

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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