An employee management system is only as good as its rewards are effective.

So what kind of employee performance and productivity can you expect when the incentives you provide are, unbeknownst to, you also disincentives?

Incentives that are disincentives? How can that happen?

Easily and almost always unintentionally—since nullifying the incentives one offers makes no sense as a motivational strategy, albeit with some exotic exceptions of the sort that will be discussed below.

How Not to Get Somebody Off the Booze

But first, to get a feel for how an incentive can be a disincentive consider this example: Imagine giving someone a drink on Saturday night for abstaining from alcohol the rest of the preceding week (or the next seven days to come).

The ostensibly reasonable idea in such a delayed payoff approach is to reward deferred gratification of an urge with eventual, isolated, brief indulgence of it.

(The alternative “reward in advance”, e.g., a bachelor party with strippers or a “final” beer to mark going on the wagon—something that apparently no creature except humans can grasp—seems, intuitively, to be even less likely to succeed, in the case of controlling addictions, although not when dealing with professionals and their payment, if only because the latter prefer to earn your trust rather than exploit it.)

What makes this paradoxical mixed disincentive-incentive strategy seem cogent is that when combined with longer and longer delays before indulgence, the process may seem to approximate desired “extinction” of the habit and therefore of the urge.

The problem with this notion is that, if the intervals between drinks vary, the effort is likely to be completely derailed by the competing power of “intermittent”—”variable interval” or “variable ratio” reinforcement—rewards at unpredictable intervals or after unpredictable repetitions of the behavior, e.g., an indeterminate number of items produced as piecework.

This predictable failure is entirely attributable to the well-established fact that intermittent reinforcement is much more effective in ensuring the persistence of behavior than either unvarying and therefore predictable “fixed-interval reinforcement” or “fixed-ratio reinforcement”.

That’s what makes playing slot machines addictive—intermittent, sporadic reinforcement and why we are more bitter when someone always dependable fails us than when someone with a spottier reliability record does. The latter can keep us “addicted” to depending on him longer than the former, through intermittent rewarding instances of dependability.

When the interval between reward drinks is fixed, e.g., at one drink per month, the motivational and behavioral management scheme is likely to fail as soon as the subject sees the month of abstinence as a means to the moment of indulgence, rather than as incremental withdrawal.

Likewise with any fixed-ratio reinforcement scheme, e.g., having to say “no” twenty times before being allowed to say “yes” to an offer to drink. Again, postponement comes to be perceived as only a means to what is supposed to be eliminated.

In more general, employee management terms, such a motivational and behavioral management program amounts to rewarding an employee for not doing X by allowing or requiring him to do X.

On-the- Job Disincentive Incentives

Can’t imagine this in an employment setting? Here are some examples:

  • Creating a suffocating onsite smokers-room for employees that can be accessed only during lunchtime in order to induce partial or small-scale “cold turkey” withdrawal, as well as to respect the rights of non-smoking workers.

Problem: If the stigma of banishment to the smoking room or the swirling brew of concentrated second-hand toxic smoke in the gas chamber doesn’t stress out the smokers, thereby making them need even more nicotine fixes, being denied indulgence on demand may very well exacerbate their underlying stress—much as not indulging the equally oral needs of infants can when they are no longer fed on demand.

Therefore, if the smoking-room strategy has as a secondary goal decreasing overall employee smoking, it is likely to accomplish precisely the opposite, especially since having poor stress management skills is, according to  research, the cardinal, common trait among smokers.

  • Rewarding employees for not taking work breaks by allowing them to leave early.

Allowing employees to leave early if they take no breaks is comparable in one respect to allowing them to work a shorter week for the same pay. The latter is exactly what the city council of Gothenberg, Sweden is proposing for a segment of its municipal workers, in the form of a 6-hour work day, shortened from seven hours.

The similarity is offering more time away from the job in both cases. The difference is that, unlike the workers in Gothenberg, Sweden, the no-break employees would have to work harder during their work hours, whereas, as the Swedes’ logic suggests, the Gothenberg employees would naturally and simply be more productive in their remaining time.

To see how, consider the underlying reasoning of the Swedes: As they see it, shortening the work day amounts to loping off the least productive hours of the shift—on the assumption that the “marginal utility of labor” decreases as the day wears on and as fatigue or tedium sets in. In other words, workers tend to be least productive in the final hours of their shift.

On that analysis, the six core, earlier hours should and will become more productive than before not only to offset whatever output losses would be incurred by truncating work shifts by one hour, but also because of heightened morale.

In this respect, the two scenarios are identical, inasmuch as both are attempts to improve morale by sending workers home earlier.

Otherwise, if the Swede’s pay were also to be reduced proportionately, the Swede’s idea would make indisputably good sense—that is, unless a pay-cut induced resentment or anxiety factor kicked in to reduce employee productivity during the remaining six hours of work.

Now, in the case of the forsaken work breaks in exchange for early clock-out, the scheme amounts to rewarding employees for not taking shift breaks by giving them a different break, in the form of a daily earlier sign out—a feature shared with the Swedish scheme.

Problem: The way that this can backfire in the no-break scheme is similar to how the alcohol control program described above can backfire: In the drink management scheme, behavior that is targeted for extinction, viz., the habit of drinking, is actually rewarded by being allowed.

In this break-time swap, the behavior that is targeted for extinction, viz., not working (during breaks), is similarly rewarded with permission to do precisely that—to not work and to go home instead.

Theoretically, some employees may experience the extra free time as having the kick of that otherwise forbidden drink and interpret more free time as an addictive goal, rather than as a behavioral inhibitor.

In that case, it would not be surprising if some of them created ways to appear to be working without a break—much as many Japanese do when forced, as they commonly are, to work overtime, either without any extra pay or without any pay at all for it.

The result: The intended incentive to work harder becomes a disincentive to do precisely that.

  • Recruiting political candidates who will fight lobbyists and corporate cronyism by requiring them to cozy up to both during campaigns or after election.

Problem: This fits the paradigm of rewarding employees to not do X by allowing or requiring them to do X. The reward for the candidate, in this instance, is being able to fight for clean government once elected or for a short while before that.

Unfortunately, what is being rewarded is, as the paradigm makes obvious, not fighting for clean government and, instead, resisting, if not opposing it, by selling out and buying into corruption—the exact opposite of the upright behavior to be allowed as reward.

Whereas in the other examples cited here the backfire is unintentional and unforeseen, it can be argued that the supposed backfire is, in this political scenario, in fact engineered into the motivation and behavioral management scheme of the candidate’s handlers and/or patrons.

What they are counting on is that once the candidate has a taste of the perks of cronyism and the like, any crusade against these will lose its appeal, much as an alcoholic’s having a taste of sobriety and phased withdrawal may be imagined to make the pleasures of drink pale by comparison and its costs more evident.

Hence in effect or by design, combating corruption ends up being a disincentivized incentive.

Your Move

Other examples should be easy to imagine. Those provided here and your now being aware of the dangers inherent in offering incentives that are disincentives should suffice to make you reflect on possible instances in your own workplace or career…

…unless, of course, you see some disincentive to do so.

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