Making Successful Incentive Programs Stick

bob's Blog Dr. Bob Nelson

Much effort goes into the planning and implementation of effective incentive programs to shape and encourage new employee behaviors.  Little is done, however, to help make those new behaviors become permanent in the workplace.  After merchandise awards are distributed to employees or travel awards are taken by top performers, the focus on desired behaviors such as increased sales, customer service or employee suggestions is greatly diminished.  Often diminished with it are the desired results these programs promoted.

What can managers and organizations do to perpetuate desired behaviors after an incentive program has concluded?  Plenty.  Reinforcement theory tells us that after new behavior has been established, it can best be perpetuated through intermittent reinforcement.  Translated, this means don't forget the behavior you wanted on an ongoing basis just because a program to promote it has ended.  Selective ongoing emphasis on the behavior can perpetuate results--and at a fraction of the original cost.  Here are some examples:

Keep communicating about the topic.  Carry articles about continued results and examples of successes in your company publication or call them out publicly in department or company meetings.  For instance, employee suggestions can continue to be highlighted by noting company savings from each suggestion or by interviewing top suggesters to encourage role modeling.  Also, have management individually thank employees who have continued to perform as desired.

Provide ongoing training.  Emphasize the new behaviors in orientation and training programs.  For example, after the end of a company-wide quality initiative, be sure the topic of quality is adequately covered in the new employee orientation program as a value the organization holds dear.  Make sure training programs are established to continue to promote the desired skills in practice and to train employees that change jobs or are new to the organization.

Align policies and procedures to support new behaviors.  Nothing will kill incentive program advances faster than organizational systems that do not support the desired behavior.  For example, if you just finished an incentive program that got your sales team focused on selling to larger customers, make sure the company's invoicing system and shipping practices are geared to serving large customers as well.

Hire and promote based upon the value of the program.  To perpetuate desired behavior, make it become a value for the organization upon which hiring and promotions are based.  For example, at Disney they hire employees who are people-oriented for almost every position in the organization.  By hiring based upon that value, they find it is easier to deliver better service to customers and perpetuate the service value in their organizational culture.  A truly integrated value should also become part of employee performance reviews. 

Build upon past programs.  Build and learn from the incentive program you just finished to launch a follow-up program.  For example, turn end-of-program awards into a tradition by creating annual awards based upon the criteria of the initial incentive program.  Or, if you just had a successful program to promote improved customer service, shift the emphasis to focus on improved internal service between departments.

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