Incenting, Not Incensing Workers

Smart leaders want to know about lower-level problems. For this reason, highest-level cultures often institute no-blame near-miss reporting systems.

Ever find that what initially seems like a good thing just backfires? This is more likely to happen with an intervention when leaders haven't thoroughly thought it through.

For example, a global manufacturing company recently requested our guidance in setting up an incentive system mandated by a senior executive. Sure, there were many vendors promising effortless improvements in Safety performance if the company would buy their products or systems. You've seen the ads and booths promoting a quick fix for all that ails you: little effort, relatively low cost (and you may not even need some other interventions!).

But leaders in this company are astute and already knew that incentives can be like the proverbial child, "When he's good, he's great, but when he's bad, he's horrid." Even so, they hadn't realized some ramifications of their charge, which my colleague Ron Bowles and I surfaced for consideration. Though a short article can't customize recommendations to your company culture, here are some key points to consider in instituting or high-grading an incentive system:

1. Focus on your cultural objectives. Incorporate incentives that fit your culture and directly move toward your overall system objectives. Begin by asking, "What am I trying to encourage or reinforce?" Then, "Am I reinforcing the right thing?" For example, if you wish to elevate personal responsibility, a bingo-based incentive (a game of luck, not skill nor individual control) may collide head-on with your desired direction.

2. Anticipate potential disconnects. Take time to foresee how you might minimize potential downsides/pitfalls of incentives.

  • Pitfall 1: Encouraging non-reporting. Incentives that reward having fewer incidents make it more likely you won't hear these reports. And smart leaders do want to know lower-level problems, because accidents that can otherwise be hidden are actually early-level opportunities to engineer, P&P, and/or train out these exposures before they potentially lead to major and un-hideable injuries. For this reason, highest-level cultures often institute no-blame near-miss reporting systems.
  • Pitfall 2: Stoking individual vs. group tensions. Rewarding only groups for performance can backfire. (As in, "Why shouldn't I get my incentive just because someone else in my group got hurt? I worked safely....") This can lead either to group pressure to not report incidents or to workers cold-shouldering those who get hurt (resulting in lessened communications and increased chances for future problems in engagement, productivity, and safety).
  • Pitfall 3: Sidetracking strategies for cultural improvement. In previous columns ( 2008/05/Next-Level-Safety-Cultures.aspx), I've outlined 4 Safety Cultures. Tangible incentives are usually a hallmark of Stage 2 ("For") Cultures. If you are serious about moving up to next-level culture and performance, it's essential to adopt the "look and feel" of that higher step. In best-performing cultures, Safety becomes increasingly internalized by everyone. Workers and managers think through and act effectively because they personally value Safety, not because they are trying to qualify for or win something.
  • Pitfall 4: Assuming you can see Safety at work. Autonomous workers or those who travel out-of-plant are difficult to monitor or even supervise and may not fit well with an incentive model.
  • Pitfall 5: Setting expectations of ever-higher rewards. In too many companies, incentives have triggered the entitlement button.

3. Select best mechanisms. Incent, don't incense. Speak with a sampling of workers you wish to reach to get their take before instituting an incentive system. Do proposed incentives seem fair/unfair? Easy to administer vs. readily "played"? What might backfire?

  • Target involvement as an indicator of success. We've noted highestlevel Safety cultures consistently have strongest worker engagement and most active participation. To that end, we suggest recognizing and encouraging involvement (participation in committees, making useful Safety suggestions, becoming a peer trainer, making a short presentation at a Safety meeting, honest near-miss reporting, reporting stories of how they applied Safety training in new ways or to off-work tasks, etc).
  • Prefer offering recognition to rewards.
  • Select lasting tangibles.
  • Involve the home/family.
  • Get supervisors involved early—before the rollout.

4. Reinforce the reinforcement. Periodically remind everyone why you have an incentive system and what you're trying to accomplish. Set expectations of the shelf life of this particular round of incentives. Change it up. Because nothing gets everyone's attention forever, switch incentives to maintain and then regain attention.

Remember that incentives don't have to be big, nor costly, nor earth-shattering. Recognition often works best. Remove those that no longer work or are actually sending the wrong signals. Above all, employ incentives and recognition to help people bring Safety into their own everyday thinking and actions.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email

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