Using Incentives to Accelerate Learning
By Penny Reynolds
If you are a trainer only interested in training, then you will have little interest in incentive programs. However, if your training department has a broader mission of improving organizational and individual performance, you may find incentives to be an invaluable adjunct to your center’s training program.
The reason is simple. Performance of any task – on the job or off – is a function of two factors – ability and motivation. This may be stated as a simple behavioral equation: Performance = Ability x Motivation. It is important to note that these two factors are related in a multiplicative fashion. To be knowledgeable or skilled at performing a task is not the same as performing it well. Nor will desire alone produce actual results. There is little value in “trying to” or “knowing how” to do a task. It’s the performance that counts.
One bank decided to put this concept into play by adding incentives to its call center training program. The results of this training were dramatic. New business doubled in the quarter following the training/incentive period, at a total acquisition cost of less than one percent.
This bank reached some important conclusions from their experiment with an incentive-based training program, as outlined below.
Employees were given an incentive (award) for learning. What was learned became worth knowing. The employee saw that skill acquisition led to real rewards, so even the learning process itself is reinforced. By correctly completing quizzes, employees earned award points. These were easily cost-justifiable because of the enormous program results.
Newly acquired skills were continually reinforced. New skills, such as listening, questioning, or presenting, were reinforced with a clear, tangible reward. This reinforcement occurred not just in the classroom (correct answers) but on the job (correct behaviors) where the “connections” among behavior, environmental cues, and reinforcement are more realistic.
Peer-oriented training is desirable. With the exception of the design of some training material and the initial training of team leaders, there were no experts or training authorities involved in the program. No doubt this somewhat decreases the effectiveness of the teaching process, but it may be more than compensated for by various factors. Learning seems to be enhanced when the learners are also given responsibility for the training. Just as the do-it-yourselfers may devote special care and interest and drive a unique sense of self satisfaction, do-it-yourself training may have similar merit.
The ways the trainer can effectively apply incentives are limited only by imagination and organizational needs. Whatever the application, the basic principles of a well-designed incentive program remain constant.
Ten Principles of Incentive Learning
The behavior to be rewarded must be clearly defined. Any confusion about behavioral standards quickly leads to perceptions of unfairness by participants. One way to demotivate people quickly is to let them perform certain behaviors and then have them find out that they don’t get rewarded because they didn’t understand (or you did not communicate) exactly what was required. In this sense, target behaviors must not only be measurable and properly defined, but they must also be communicated effectively to program participants. The measurement system assessing performance must also be publicly communicated.
Awards should be given as soon as possible after the desired behavior occurs. Bonuses given at the end of the year for a job well done in the beginning of the year, for example, simply lose impact in the intervening months. Why not reward outstanding achievement right away? This strengthens the connection, in everyone’s mind, between high performance and management’s willingness to reward it. Whereas salaries and other forms of compensation may be rather inflexible in this regard due to organization policy and administrative practices, recognition, awards, and/or merchandise can be given almost immediately.
When it comes to awards, one size does not fit all. We all know that people do things for their own reasons, not for those of someone else. We also know that no two people are exactly alike in terms of what they value. To maximize the behavioral return on incentive investment, trainers must provide as broad a range of rewards as possible. When this is done, participants can select the award or set of awards that has particular appeal to them. Simple logic dictates that the more highly the reward is valued by people, the greater the likelihood that they will perform the desired behaviors and maintain them over time. Programs that offer only one type of award tend not to influence each participant personally.
Awards should be memorable. One disadvantage of giving cash awards, for example, is that they are apt to be melded into household budgets and be used for necessities. Merchandise or travel, on the other hand, typically have a more lasting impact, and continue to evoke pleasant associations over a longer period of time.
Effective awards have emotional appeal. They arouse an individual’s awareness of his needs and wants, thus motivating him toward achievement and satisfaction of those needs. We have often heard merchandise catalogs described as “wish books” for example. They have a capacity for evoking pleasant images and fantasies of desired lifestyles. Because merchandise, as well as travel, has such broad and strong emotional appeal, it tends to inspire increased levels of employee performance.
Awards should be accompanied by social recognition. Fanfare may be corny to some, but you cannot underestimate the value of presenting an award with enthusiasm. When the company president, for example, presents an award, its impact is doubled. This shows the recipients that their efforts are being noted and appreciated at all levels. Most trainers recognize and understand the value of verbal recognition and other forms of encouragement. An incentive program provides a valuable opportunity for trainers to tie these social rewards closely to tangible rewards. Excessive reliance on material awards is just as limited as their exclusion. Verbal reinforcement is free and powerful.
Award programs need to be administered fairly if everyone is to participate. Different levels of performance deserve to be rewarded at different value plateaus. When the rewards are too difficult to achieve, effort becomes minimal. Conversely, when rewards are too easily attained, participants are not pushed to excel, to stretch themselves, and generate significant performance increments.
Awards must be won if they are going to serve any purpose. Winning an award is an energizing process. It creates good feelings about one’s self and about the company. Don’t be stingy in award programs. Awards represent an investment in your employees and their performance, an investment that typically pays off handsomely in terms of increased morale and employee effectiveness. In too many instances, incentives are applied as part of a contest where there are a few winners and many more losers. A number of people approach these contests with a negative mental attitude with low expectations. It is important to provide opportunities for everyone to earn according to the amount of effort they are willing to expend or the results they achieve.
While awards can be used to motivate behavior, this fact in itself creates real danger. Just as excesses in printing money can create economic problems, trainers who print diplomas and buy plaques can destroy the motivational value of their awards if they are too numerous and too cheap.
Awards stimulate motivation, but we have frequently found that motivation alone is not sufficient. Performance is actually a function of two factors,—motivation and skill. Thus, it is often effective to supplement incentive awards with training.
One more point should be made regarding the use of incentives to reinforce behavior. Too often we reward only the outcome of the desired behavior, rather than the behavior itself. For example, incentives are often used to reward increased sales. This does increase motivation levels, but the behavior outcomes are not always under the control of the participant. Whether a person closes a sale is at least partially determined by the customer. If the behaviors leading to the positive outcomes – such as increased prospecting or more sales calls – are rewarded, then we strengthen the desired behavior change. Once this change becomes part of the individual’s behavioral repertoire, the desired outcomes will occur naturally and frequently.
In general, the use of teams adds a powerful motivational element to any incentive program. Teams satisfy basic social needs. Enthusiasm is generated and more often than not, this enthusiasm is contagious. Awards based on team performance serve to generate a healthy sense of good-natured competition, which often motivates people who otherwise might not have participated on an individual level. Group achievement, especially when natural work groups are involved, tends to generate lasting organizational benefits, such as improved communication skills, teamwork, and leadership training.
Trainers who truly want to maximize benefits of using incentives should build a goal-setting component into their programs. This applies to individual goals and team goals. Research shows that people who set goals tend to perform at higher levels than people who do not. Additionally, individuals who publicly commit themselves to achieving various measurable objectives tend to achieve their objectives more often than those who do not make such a commitment. Thus, it makes good sense for performance program participants to develop their own behaviorally contracts, noting the awards they will be shooting for and the specific steps they will take in order to achieve those awards.
The need for improved performance doesn’t begin and end during any particular time span. When training is combined with incentives, the goal is to provide a healthy “push” that moves participants toward improved performance and permanent behavior change. The wise incentive user knows that when a performance program ends, performance might well return to pre-program levels. For this reason, it’s important to take action to ensure more lasting behavior change. Periodic booster skill-building sessions are helpful. So is the continued use of social rewards and feedback. Additional programs, albeit smaller and segmented for specific groups, also can be employed to take advantage of the momentum generated by the effort and success of the initial program.
Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the workforce management community. She can be reached at 615-812-8410 or firstname.lastname@example.org.