Are Your Incentives What You’re Truly Incenting?

Why your people may behave contrary to your intentions

If you’ve ever wondered why members of your workforce behave in ways contrary to what you expect — what motivates them to deviate from how you planned for them to act — I suggest it’s likely due to what you’re incenting.

To this you might respond, “Hang on; don’t you mean incentivizing?” No, I do not, because in my experience, there is a critical difference between incentivizing and incenting.

To me, incentivize suggests a formal program with a measurable metric and corresponding payout or intentional reward. It’s your method for offering a defined enticement — an incentIVE — according to a pre-conceived behavior plan or blueprint.

Such programs are fairly common in all kinds of businesses. Recognizing this, you might then posit that incenting is merely the act of offering an incentive from that plan, but I think that’s a tad simplistic since I don’t often observe workforce realities harmonize incentives and behaviors that easily.

Incent, to me, is about behavioral motivations — human behavior that is implicitly or indirectly encouraged and rewarded at a personal level. So, in contrast to incentivize, incent refers to how you are actually, according to individual human nature, motivating the person to behave — intentionally or unintentionally — and money or some other defined enticement may or may not be a factor in sync with the core desires or needs of your people.

In fact, I most often observe the largest contrast between incenting and incentivization exposes itself through unintentionally motivated behaviors.

Early in my small business career I went to a local electronics store to buy a couple new PCs. Heading into the experience, I knew the salespeople worked on commission. They were incentivized (with money) to sell more. Being mentally prepared for this dynamic, in I went, was greeted by the salesperson, and browsed the PCs. I found a model sporting many attractive features but a very appealing low price. So I asked about that brand, about their reliability and reputation. And the salesperson gushed, “Oh yeah! These are terrific machines! People love them!”

I decided to purchase two of them, and while completing the transaction, the salesperson encouraged me to purchase an additional maintenance plan for the computers. So I asked, “Do people experience a lot of problems with these machines?” And he responded, “Oh yeah! These things are always breaking down!”

Surely you can spot the contradiction as fast as I did. The salesperson was clearly incentivized to sell both PCs and maintenance plans, but what behavior was potentially incented (and acted out) was lying to customers in order to get more money.

Now, you might argue that lying is not a guaranteed outcome of the formal sales incentives — that it was the salesperson who chose to try to meet his objectives through that behavior. And you’d be correct in that it was his choice.

But therein lies a critical difference between incentivizing and incenting. Understanding what’s being potentially incented relies on factoring in the breadth of human motivations, impulses, and behaviors, recognizing that in the end, the individual will always be making their choice based on such intrinsic factors.

Humans are not electronic circuits into which you can feed a couple of inputs and have guaranteed successful outputs in every circumstance, every time. There are always human tendencies and desires that will influence a person’s response to whatever incentivization plan or behavioral blueprint you conceive.

One of the most humorous illustrations of this is the Dilbert cartoon from November 13, 1995. The pointy-haired boss says a new company goal is error-free code, and to achieve that, bonus money will be paid to the programmers for every coding error they find and correct. The employees erupt in cheers and Wally says he’s going to code himself a new minivan. The boss ends with, “I hope this drives the right behavior.”

While the boss hoped a financial incentive would motivate a righteous company-centric behavior, the factors in play amplified contrasting desires, and accordingly, his employees’ interest in acquiring more money won out over creating error-free software or helping the company achieve operational efficiency.

Perhaps you have made this same (fairly common) mistake at some point in your business, but hopefully you learned the lesson: money is not a magical overriding enticement that always achieves your desired results. In fact, sometimes other factors — self-protection, control/ownership, ease/comfort — even win out over money. This is why any incentive you offer or behavioral mandate you make that is either in conflict with or overly rewards more highly prized human interests will often result in you disproportionately incenting behaviors contrary to your intentions.

As such, when plotting what you’re truly incenting and predicting the direct & indirect effects on your organization, you have to try to consider all other factors and their personal effects on your people.

This balancing act of multiple interests and motivations pertaining to incentives and rewards is always in play. While people often cannot clearly articulate what will be an incentive to them, they intuitively always seem to know when there are simply more advantageous reasons for them to act in one way versus another. They can find (or at least feel) what’s actually being rewarded. You need to admit this and be expecting it, because again, people are not circuit boards. There’s not one magic input button you can press to get perfect behavioral outputs.

To keep this article shorter, I won’t take time to profile the many cases of “accidental incenting” I’ve witnessed across a variety of organizations in my career. I’m sure you could think of your own examples of such conflicts when you examine your past personal experiences through this lens: formal incentivization is about external enticements being crafted for an intended goal (though perhaps not always effectively) while incenting is about the action potentially motivated within and exploited by the human being, even if unintentionally.

If you’re currently planning a new way to influence workforce behavior, it is imperative that you be proactively thoughtful about what you’re designing, because you will always get what you incent, reward, and reinforce, even if it’s not what you intended to birth when you created that behavior blueprint.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you’ve either already implemented a plan and are seeing results contrary to expectations, or no formal plan is in the mix but you’re struggling to figure out what’s really driving current behaviors. It can be challenging to sleuth out what is being implicitly incented by the structural, political, or cultural rules at play in the organization (particularly when a formal incentivization plan is not in the mix.) This requires you to ponder, “what motivations and behaviors are we rewarding? What are we really incenting?” If you’re courageous enough to examine the behaviors being acted out and trace them to their root, you’re going to uncover the reward.

Remember, incented behaviors always exist because there is a personal reward being received somewhere. It just may not be the reward you want to exist or intended to provide by what you’re incentivizing. You also need to be prepared for it to at least partially involve factors and human motivations you cannot directly control, but find the reward and you will have found the root of the issue, the key to unlocking the “why” behind your workers’ behaviors.

Armed with awareness and understanding of the root reasons, with courage you can finally conceive an appropriate treatment plan for disincenting those behaviors, which may involve revising any incentivization blueprints and informal enticements that exist in your organization.

In the end, none of us can account for every last personal factor nor can we fully control any human beings other than ourselves. But by being fully aware of what we are potentially incenting and rewarding, we can approach workplace incentives wiser and better prepared for the behaviors they create.


For a more complete investigation of fouled up reward systems (with many diverse examples) I recommend Steven Kerr’s “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B


For more visual thoughts on business, technology, culture, and human nature, follow Ben Kobulnicky on Medium and subscribe to his YouTube channel.