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Are We Motivating or Bribing Our People?

November 12, 2013

MotivationThe way you treat your employees can seem very similar to how you treat your children. If you bribe your kids with goodies to gain their compliance, then their natural willingness to comply will drop. Often times, organizational leaders are guilty of using similar bribery when motivating workplace people.

Since the 1940s, we have become accustomed to using extrinsic (external) rewards for incentivizing workplace people: such as, bonuses, commissions, promotions, competition, penalties, potential firing, demotions, “clocking-in and out,” and so on. But numerous studies since the ‘60s have proven extrinsic rewards are counterproductive because they are similar to “lighting fires under people.”

More recently, I had the option of reading Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive, which points out the futility of using extrinsic incentives. According to the Times article, Dan Pink stated,”The problem with bribing is not the rewards; it’s the contingency, which is a form of control. Human beings have only two reactions to control. They either comply or defy.

In the workplace, defiance comes in the form of disinterest or ignoring the requirement for action. So many executives experience such behavior from their people without realizing their issue. Instead, they just up the ante to induce interest, which can become prohibitively expensive for their organizations.

Another reality is what Pink describes in his book as, “…offering short-term incentives to elicit behavior. It is unreliable, ineffective and causes ‘considerable long-term damage.’ People perform the task merely to get the reward: when the reward is removed, they stop doing it.” Again, when a work task is not particularly enjoyable or especially challenging, offering ever increasing incentives (bribes) to complete those tasks causes organizations to shoot themselves in the foot, and incurs the sheer expense of the incentives.

As an alternative path, we need to understand what motivates people intrinsically or “lights fires within them.” By doing this, we will perpetuate the desired behaviors and results without having to constantly “bribe” people. Writers like Dan Pink and Dr. David Sirota (author of The Enthusiastic Employee) have applied a tremendous amount of practical research to identify intrinsic motivators.

Sirota has condensed their findings into an acronym called PEACAM: 

  • P= sense of purpose;
  • E= equality and respect;
  • A= achievement and recognition;
  • C= camaraderie all round;
  • A= autonomy and trust;
  • M= mastery of required know-how.

All these items “light fires within people.”  
PigeonJust think of Pavlov’s famous pigeon experiment, where he trained pigeons into a particular behavior pattern by feeding them grain seeds every time they moved in the desired direction. In Pink’s terminology, he used “now-that” motivation rather than “if-then” bribes. In other words, when the pigeon did the right thing it was rewarded: instead of being told if it did the right thing then it would get that (known as bribing). Once the pigeon reached the desired behavior, it self-sustained that behavior due to its own inner satisfaction of doing the right thing.

Examples of the right work behavior include on-time performance, meeting realistic objectives, taking initiative, being reliable, and so on. Of course, everyone at the outset has their own value set on all these items, dependent on temperament, upbringing, and prior job experiences. We should take those into account when applying PEACAM.

We can use Pavlov’s approach with team members who are within the normal, value-set range. If we coach or mentor people properly at the outset, we can use one or more of the PEACAM factors mentioned earlier, whenever people behave in the right manner by using “now-that.” All being well and with patience, they will reach the desired level. Once that happens, we let the person self-reinforce himself or herself. Over time, this will produce highly motivated people not looking for incentives (or bribes) to do the right thing.

Naturally we have to overcome three things within ourselves to do this: 1) Develop greater patience to motivate people, 2) Instill a willingness to positively rather than negatively reinforce people…something hard to do when our parents didn’t do it, 3) (the biggest obstacle of all) Give up Executive Bribes. Executive incentives have reached such levels, legitimized by paying their people incentives, that they will have to forgo these excessive bribes. Instead, the money can be plowed back into the enterprise to foster continued growth, prosperity and everyone’s overall well-being.


Peter Arthur SmithPeter Arthur-Smith is the Founding Principal of Leadership Solutions, Inc®, New York, which offers groundbreaking organizational tools and practices that can position executives to become Remarkable Leaders. He has recently authored the book- “Smart Decisions: Goodbye Problems, Hello Options” – and is writing another, “Catching the Next Wave: Becoming Remarkable Leaders.”   You may contact Peter at 212-332-8907 or by e-mail at

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2013 7:20 pm

    my humble 2 cents : while the content on your blog is always great, the optics of your word press theme using the white text on the black background make it very hard on the eye. Initially distinctive, but hard to follow. You may want to ask others if they feel the same way. Tim O’Brien

  2. Peter Arthur-Smith permalink
    November 15, 2013 12:16 pm

    As the author of the article about “Are we Motivating or Bribing, ” Scott, I wanted to acknowledge the two comments left by Sandy K and Eric Scott B.

    In the case of Sandy, he makes good additional points. He nudged me to say that we so often ignore the good reliable performers and spend all our time focusing on the under- performers. There are those executives who believe it should be the other way around. That way, they get even more from their high performers and challenge the underperformers. through PEACAM, to step up.

    In the case of Eric, his example is so apropos. He shows how people will step up to the plate, no matter what, when the Purpose, Respect, Accomplishment, Camaraderie, Trust and Mastery are there. His example speaks volumes to all the extrinsic CIGFAM thinkers, particularly those who believe in bribing people with financial incentives. If they could only realize how counterproductive incentives are. There is also the possibility they have bankrupted many companies and maybe even part of the paradigm which is bankrupting America. Unfortunately, they’re like so many narcotics: financial incentives are addictive. They are also the easy recipe for those executives who really don’t want to invest in deeper forms of intrinsic motivation. This is a huge frontier for change, but maybe as difficult as stopping the flow of drugs from other parts of the world.

    Finally, I wanted to correct an editorial error that came about through my inadequate initial article. PEACAM was an acronym that I developed from the writings of Dan Pink and David Sirota. David did not create the acronym, since I felt his writings did not go quite far enough. Best, Peter

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