Incentives Don’t Always Produce The Best Work

Tower Force - Pressure Vessel Specialists

Incentives Don’t Always Produce The Best Work


During visits with clients, I’m almost assuredly asked about the kinds of safety or performance incentives we have for our employees. My answer is that, besides offering a good wage and great medical and dental programs, we hire true craftsmen. It’s our assertion that a craftsperson’s biggest incentive is to work for us on the next project. We believe working productively and safely is already a part of their skillsets. Our employees want to do a good job.

Whitney Strickland - Tower Force
Whitney Strickland, VP of Sales, Tower Force

Like many in our industry, we have tried using safety incentives. We have found these incentives don’t always work as positive reinforcement. While well intended, they often create the opposite effect.

Many contractors offer incentives such as a dollar extra per hour if the project is completed safely. It sounds like a good idea, but if there’s so much as a single incident, employees don’t receive the incentive. The promise is made in good faith, but human nature is what it is and there’s surely disappointment on everyone’s part. It’s as though something wonderful is promised and then taken away. Of course, the bonus is ensured only if the project was successfully completed, but people tend to forget that part of the equation.

We’ve also found “performance reviews” don’t always work as planned. In fact, they add stress and fail to take into account individual differences and talents. It’s kind of like management is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Human behaviorist Alfie Kohn said, “At least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task or for doing that task successfully simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all.”

Ask yourself this question: “Why would management want to hurt morale?” Obviously, a good management team wants to encourage teamwork and have happy, productive workers. Yet, many companies buy into these evaluation processes. The fact is most people think they’re doing a good job (whether they are or not).

For those performing at the top of their game, why would you give a review that’s structured in such a way it’s impossible to get a perfect score? The truly productive among us will be disillusioned and may even want to go work for a competitor.

Our business is based on a collaborative team effort. When performing turnarounds, it’s imperative everyone contributes to the project’s success. Let’s say one person on the team gets a good review and another doesn’t; what does that do to the team?

We’ve also found most evaluation processes interrupt the flow of business and are difficult to implement in a fair and practical way. We’ve chosen instead to have a very simple evaluation of workers by their supervisors. This system simply points out the skills they need to improve. Rather than offering only all criticism, it also points out those skills/areas in which the supervisor feels the craftsperson is performing well.

We contend it’s better to mentor and nurture those who have the potential, qualities and skills we need. We believe demonstrating through doing and offering praise when a task is well executed is the best form of “incentive” because this means you’ll be called back on the next project and possibly have a lifetime career within our organization.

We’re not alone in our contention. John Labbe of JEM Performance Consulting lays it out in no uncertain terms. He also paraphrases Fredrick Herzberg, who was a pioneer in the study of human performance. “If you want people motivated to do a good job, give them a good job to do,” Herzberg said. Labbe adds to Herzberg’s statement by saying it takes two steps to give people a good job. The first is “to provide longterm incentives that are tied directly to the company philosophy.” The second is “to give everyone a stake in the success of the business.”

Our philosophy is pretty much as Labbe and Herzberg described. When we succeed by being knowledgeable, skilled, innovative, productive and working safely, everyone wins. Everyone, including our clients, has “skin in the game.” The mutual reward is a success.

For more information, contact Whitney Strickland at

Also published in BIC Magazine.


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