Last week I was in San Francisco working at one of our major hubs helping cycle count material in their building. We would work from 5a.m. to 1p.m. and then explore the city the rest of the day. One night we ended up going to a small start up company’s get together for some of their clients. My coworker knew one of the employees and got us in. What I want to focus on though, was the conversation I had with the CEO of this small company. Their app was based around basic behavior shaping, having an incentive or reinforcement for behaviors you want to achieve. This got me thinking about how we incentivize and motivate our employees, let talk.

B.F. Skinner did an experiment on a group of rats incentivizing them for different behaviors. The rats had a feeder in their cage that allowed them to receive food after a different amount of taps on the device itself. One style of cage would have a pellet of food drop every time the rat touched the device. This reward had a slow response rate and a quick extinction rate. Yet this is how we push our sales teams to acquire new sales, achieve a sale and get a commission.

The second style of incentives was an intermittent reward in which after a certain number of taps on the feeder led to a pellet of food being dropped. While this had a higher response rate, it still had a fairly quick extinction rate in which the rat would no longer use it. This is similar to most reward programs where you buy a certain amount of a widget and you eventually receive one for free. How many rewards programs do you forget that you had a punch card or forgot to swipe your card? These may be good at first, but eventually you will forget or the reward will not incentivize you to buy more.

The third style of incentives was a fixed interval where as long as the rat pushed the lever at least one time in a certain time period a pellet was given. This had a good response rate as well as a slower extinction rate. Not many programs look like this, yet it does have a good response rate and can shape behavior.

The last few styles are all very similar in that they all give a varying reward in a varying amount of time. This style of incentive not only had a very high response rate from the rats and a slow extinction rate, meaning they continued to do the desired behavior of tapping the machine regardless of the reward. This is similar to gambling or fishing. This type of behavior shaping has the most behavior shaping capabilities, yet almost no incentive plans are shaped like this. Why?

What if instead of giving straight commission to our sales teams we gave them random bonuses throughout the year. After a random number of sales a bonus would be given based on the sales dollars in that period. The amount of times a bonus would be given would be completely random along with the percentage that they would receive. This would not only encourage sales teams to sell more, but also at a higher margin. I can’t say that I have seen this work or have an example of it working in a real life situation, but I do know that this type of reward shapes behavior.

Don’t forget that different motivators drive people. Some look at money, some look at time off, and even some look at the culture within their companies. Just remember that the incentive programs you are compensating your people with are shaping their behavior. First set the standard or agree upon what behavior you are looking for. Then base your compensation plans around that knowing what to incentivize your people with and what style you need to use. Shape the behavior of your people to get the result you desire.

On purpose,