The cost of behavioural transactions

SONY DSCSome workplaces I have visited use so called ‘scratchies’ to encourage and reward ‘safe behaviours’. Managers typically hand out such lottery tickets to employees who report hazards, come up with improvement ideas, or have filled out a risk assessment card in an exemplary way. Some workplaces have been known to give out rewards to drive more generic performance, such as giving everyone a toaster when passing 500 days without a Lost Time Injury. Reward schemes like these seem to be widespread, even though the size, value and frequency of the reward may vary. One variation I recently heard of was a mine site where employees exhibiting desired behaviours were put in the draw for relatively high value prizes, such as iPads, TVs and even cars.

If rewards are frequent, punishments may be an even more used tool to ‘get things right’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve engaged with people who believe that someone needs to be punished if there has been an accident. ‘Clearly someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do!’ And then there was a manager who told the guys in the workshop that if they had an accident they would have to have a ‘bloody good excuse’ for why he would let them stay on the project. But the use of punishment isn’t limited to operational management, for example the legal system in general  uses the fear of punishments to deter transgression.

The use of punishments and rewards to shape behaviours rests on systematic psychological studies, primarily from within the Behaviourist tradition. At the centre of Behaviourism is a theory of how living organisms learn. Its basic tenet is that subjects adapt their behaviours as they discover how the environment responds to their actions. By manipulating incentive systems and providing timely reinforcements, or punishments, it has been shown that it is possible to ‘program’ behaviours.  For example Frederic Skinner, one of the founders of Behaviourism, used rewards to train pigeons to play Ping-Pong. Similarly, James Watson taught a young boy (Albert) to stay away from white rats by startling him with a loud noise every time a white rat was presented. Unfortunately the fear generalised, and Albert developed distress in the presence of several kinds of white furry animals and objects.

The use of trinkets to cajole people into fulfilling certain behaviours, or using punishments to deter, of course comes at a cost. There is the direct cost of the enticements, and there are outlays involved with getting rid of experienced employees (and hiring new ones). Whether or not there is a positive cost benefit ratio I have no idea. However, there are many other, much more problematic, and dire, costs attached to both measures.

First, the effectiveness of external motivators attenuate over time. Once people learn what can be expected, the power of rewards dies off. Drug takers will look for heavier drugs and doses, adrenaline junkies will look for something even more thrilling, and organisations may move toward rewarding ever more basic actions, or having to up the ante significantly to maintain the excitement.

Second, in projects where rewards are connected to the number of days without injury it is not uncommon that once there has been an injury – once the streak has been broken – several other injuries will be reported in quick succession. And there are many other cases of how connecting rewards to safety performance, or using coercion and threats, drive communication and honesty underground and foster secrecy and manipulation around safety related information.

Last but not least: Rewards make use of people’s self-interest. And punishments target fear. When organisations partner with greed and fear to increase predictability and control, it comes at the cost of more noble traits such as compassion, care, creativity, cooperation, honesty, and generosity. As self-interest and fear are cultivated, engaged and encouraged throughout the organisation, we simultaneously damage and destroy the skills, insights and wisdom that can help us adapt to an unknown, complex and dynamic future. The result of an organisation increasingly empty of passion, will, vision and creativity, is a workplace in which few care about anything but themselves – a consequence not of individual choice, but from a lack of opportunity to do anything else.

Is there another way to proceed? Is it possible to switch from this hegemonic control and constrain version of safety, to a more collaborative order to achieve good outcomes? Is there a way we can evoke and engage people’s innate capabilities to contribute and be creative? Can people become an asset to overcome challenges, instead of a problem to control? Are there other drivers than coercion and competition? Can we make things work using intelligence rather than brute force? I believe so.

If you want people to care about safety, don’t incentivize it. Reward and punishment schemes around safety turn safety into a commodity to be traded, manipulated and externalised.  Instead, give people the opportunity to create and contribute. Ask what they think about 500 LTI free days achievements, and what safety goals they would like to achieve. Engage (yourself and the people you want involved) in conversations of how they would like to make things better and what can (and cannot) be done. What frustrates them? What would help getting the job done? What solutions have they come up with that the rest of the organisation can learn from? Then you work together, or give discretion, to make those things reality. The result is likely to be an organisation in which it is not only more fun, rewarding and interesting to work, but also an organisation that stands a better chance to develop innovative solutions to problems they perhaps didn’t even know about.

Note: defines cost as something that is lost, damaged, or given up in order to achieve or get something


  1. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    Hey Daniel,

    Great post! I have a great example of this…

    Appreciation can be delivered in many different forms. In my view, a reward provides positive acknowledgement that what is being achieved is recognised as a measure of success. This can be quite rewarding for an individual or team which certainly has its merits. Conversely, I have witnessed how a reward scheme can be abused.

    Recently, following a take 5 briefing, a site employee asked, “If I complete my take 5, can I go in the running for a meat tray here?”. This clearly indicates the degradation of safety in the eye of winning a ‘prize’.



    1. Tanya Hewitt Reply

      Ben –

      I’d just like to echo your “rewards not working as intended” comment – my employer once had a president who told us we were the best nuclear regulatory commission in the world. The problem was that none of us believed the president – there were so very many ways in which we all thought our jobs were inefficient, if not fundamentally directed at the wrong stuff. Add to this a comment of an employee who received an outstanding service award who stated, “I was just doing my job – really, nothing outstanding about it.” Over recognition may breed cynicism – a reaction we really do not want to encourage in safety.

  2. Rob Long Reply

    Daniel, I don’t think the safety sector in general gets beyond the simplistic level in much of this stuff. So few know that motivation is much more than carrot and stick, let alone the basics of operant conditioning. The sector is also easily conned by fads and gimmicks rather than understanding much of substance. many organisations just want to get a slogan in place and get on with business. Understanding motivation and learning are not a part of safety training and yet are the fundamental of knowing safety. There is much more to human judgement and decision making than reward and punishment or, the hedonic principle.

  3. Tanya Hewitt Reply

    Daniel – great post! Two thoughts come to mind.

    As I have seen on this website, industries/companies who claim that safety is their #1 priority are misled – if it was the case, they would stop their activities in which they are engaged (planes don’t crash if they don’t take off the ground). Safety is a value that comprises the fabric of the day to day work of everyone in the company;it underlies decisions in how work gets done. In other words, it is not externalized, it is internalized.

    A good anecdote to show this is how Dr Pronovost (CLBSI champion from John Hopkins University) describes extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic motivation. He describes how Germany had a problem with men having extraordinarily poor aim in urinals, so much so that public health began a poster campaign to remind men to improve their aim. However, one bright fellow designed a urinal with the imprint of a fly in the porcelain, and that simple urinal change had a far more effective result than the ubiquitous poster campaign. (Men now had something to aim at – and according to Dr Pronovost, everyone did – he even participated in aiming at the fly!) If people can be motivated internally, they will be far more responsive than externally sourced motivation. This must be used with caution, however – abuse or overuse will surely degrade the effectiveness.

    As well, I just listened to Sydney Dekker’s “podcast”, whereby he emphasized rewards and punishment for safety is not the right way to go. Externalizing safety is very much an “old view”, not at all consistent with thinking about safety differently!

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