What’s the Best Way to Motivate Employees? (Hint: It’s Not Threats)

By Sean Flavin August 14th, 2020

It's a problem of motivation, right? If I work (hard) and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime… (But) when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. So, my only real motivation is not to be hassled; that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Fans of the movie Office Space will probably remember this quote from the main character, Peter. Frustrated and bored beyond his breaking point, Peter explains his company's overall management style to a pair of outside consultants — affectionately called "The Bobs."

While Office Space is a fictional movie that's more than two decades old, this archaic form of using discipline and threats to inspire employee behavior is still alive and well in too many real work environments. To explain why discipline is not the best way to motivate employees, Captive Resources (CRI) invited Lisa Kazbour of Harkera Consulting to speak as part of our regular risk control webinar series. Here’s a recap of Kazbour’s presentation.

Should We Use Discipline as a Part of a Safety Strategy?

While discipline is used to motivate behavior in many scenarios, Kazbour focused her presentation on how companies use discipline when developing workplace safety policies. According to Kazbour, there are two general premises that prompt companies to make threats and discipline the backbone of their safety policies:

  • Punishing an employee will change that individual’s future behavior
  • Punishing an employee will change the behavior of the peer group who witness the discipline (i.e., it will send a message to other employees)

While they may sound primitive, the ultimate goals behind these premises are noble. According to Kazbour, the ultimate goals of using discipline to motivate employees are:

  • To stop risky behavior
  • To make the future safer

Why Discipline Isn’t the Best Way to Motivate Employees

Stopping risky behavior and making the future safer sound like objectives that most companies share; but, as Kazbour pointed out, there is significant evidence that discipline and threats aren’t doing enough to accomplish them. Kazbour shared two charts that show how workplaces have fared with "do-it-or-else mechanisms" as the primary strategy for enforcing safety policies.

Best Way to Motivate Employees-Nonfatal Incident Rate

This chart shows nonfatal incidents per 100 employees from 1996 to 2018. While nonfatal incidents have steadily declined over the last quarter of a century, the improvements have plateaued in recent years as discipline seems to have hit its ceiling on effectiveness.

Best Way to Motivate Employees-Work Fatalities

This chart shows total work fatalities over that same period. Work fatalities showed a similar downward trend as nonfatal incidents from the mid 1990's to about 2009. In 2010, the trendline teetered in the wrong direction showing a steady increase in work fatalities for the better part of the last decade.

“We can do better,” said Kazbour. “I don’t think this is an acceptable level of death or injury, so I think we need to continue making those strides.”

A Motivating Experiment

According to Kazbour, companies need to understand what motivates humans to behave in certain ways. Kazbour pointed to the classic “Skinner Box” experiment. The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner placed two rats in separate boxes with levers inside. Skinner’s goal was to use two very different motivational tactics to get the rats to pull the levers:

  • Reinforcement: The box dispensed treats each time the rat pulled the lever, which increased the likelihood the behavior would be repeated later on.
  • Threat: The box sent electric shocks into the compartment until the rat pulled the lever, which elicited an initial response but didn’t lead to sustainable, repeatable behavior.

The Problems with Using Discipline and Threats

According to Kazbour, using discipline to enforce safety policies engenders four main problems.

No. 1: Lack of Consistency

When a company uses discipline in its safety policies, the attitude is typically don't do [insert activity], or it will lead to [insert negative outcome]. For example, a company might discourage employees from taking shortcuts on the job with threats like “don’t do this or you’ll get hurt/yelled at/punished/etc.”

"(But) most of the time, the shortcut doesn't lead to a bad outcome," said Kazbour. "Most of the time, the shortcut saves them time."

When the outcomes are inconsistent (and typically don't involve negative repercussions), employees aren't inherently motivated to follow the rules.

No. 2: Creates Unwanted Behaviors

For a real-world example of this problem, Kazbour pointed to an HVAC company that mandated workers wear safety masks. One supervisor thought the policy was going great, only to discover that workers were sending out mass texts to one another whenever he pulled up so everyone knew to put on their masks quickly. The rule — backed by threats of disciplinary action — hadn't stopped any risky behavior; it only inspired employees to find a way to avoid the discipline.

No. 3: Fundamental Attribution Error

Using threats can lead to companies blaming someone's behavior on internal attributes, instead of their environment. To illustrate this problem, Kazbour used the example of a kid throwing a tantrum in a grocery store.

"Is it likely that the child is just inherently a brat?" asked Kazbour. "Or is it more likely that the child lives in an environment where that behavior has worked before?"

Rather than assigning fault to a worker or labeling the kid a brat, the best way to motivate employees (or young children), is to identify the things going on around them that caused the behavior.

No. 4: Impact on Engagement

When motivated by threat, people will only do what is required to avoid that negative outcome. Kazbour turned to the wild to help illustrate the point.

“Think about a zebra running from a lion,” said Kazbour. “The zebra is not going to run an extra two miles once it has escaped. It’s going to stop. There’s no reason to (keep running.)”

Said another way, threats “will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

Replacing Discipline with Reinforcement

If your company is looking for the best way to motivate employees and truly make your workplace safer, it's time to replace discipline with reinforcement.  Kazbour cautioned that this doesn't mean bribing employees with rewards (à la feeding rats treats so they pull a lever). Instead, reinforcement means identifying when people do things right, acknowledging that behavior and celebrating those actions.

For more information on how to use behavioral science to improve company safety, visit Harkera’s website.

About the Webinar

This presentation was part of CRI’s Risk Control Webinar Series – weekly installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect CRI’s positions on any of the above topics.

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