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Behavior Change
Employee Engagement:
Why Motivating the Elephant Is Better Than Rewarding the Rider

Many organisations are grappling with the same question: How do we create an employee reward and recognition programme designed to deliver widely adopted and sustained pro-environmental behaviours?

Many organisations are grappling with the same question: How do we create an employee reward and recognition programme designed to deliver widely adopted and sustained pro-environmental behaviours?

My response to this is to first ask: Is this in fact the right question? Motivating employees en masse via simplistic reward programmes has its limitations both fiscally (financial incentives to turn the lights out is a short-lived programme with limited net ROI) and in terms of creating sustained behaviour change. To create behaviour change it is necessary to consider behavioural economics and the role that behaviour change theory has to play in guiding our approaches to change. In their recent book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath describe the rational self as "The Rider," a rider sat astride a large and often unwieldy "elephant" — i.e. our emotional selves. This is a helpful analogy to use in employee engagement programmes. The rider may have control for a while, but elephants are big and powerful, and unless they want to head in the same direction as the rider ...

When reviewing the last decade or so of effort that has been expended in pursuit of more sustainable behaviours, at home and at work, it becomes clear that there are very significant limitations to the multiple appeals frequently made to our rational selves. Facts, figures and prophecies of what might happen if we don’t change our behaviour have all failed to motivate us — as individuals, as businesses and as governments — to deliver a sustained behaviour change for our greater and future good. The facts are that when it comes to behaviour change, we have a selfish gene to tackle and this reality to circumnavigate: near-term benefit to ‘me’ as an individual will almost always trump longer-term bigger benefit to mankind or planet. So, when it comes to giving up my wastepaper basket or switching the lights off to meet corporate targets, watch me revert to a childlike and petulant ‘No! Don’t want to!'

With the limitations of rational appeals in mind, it is clear that reliance on an employee community being motivated by a reason primarily beyond self — i.e. this ‘saves the company money,’ ‘is part of our corporate commitments to climate change’, or, ‘is the right thing to do’ — is naive. When it comes to energy use and waste reduction, the rider will listen to the logic and the reason, hear the rational argument and in all probability, agree. However, because only our reasoned self, aka the rider, has been engaged and because the rider is small, relative to the elephant it sits atop, this approach has limitations. It is the ‘reasoned’ approach that sees the elephants — our big, emotional selves — start chaining themselves to their wastepaper baskets in protest. So can money/reward sate the elephant as well as the rider?

Triaging our elephant's response with a simple cash or time in lieu reward — or even less effectively, some kind of ‘recognition’ such as ‘star of the week’ — is likely to produce, at best, a short-term, or even perverse long-term, result. Just because a child puts her toys away for pocket money today, it does not mean that she feels the need or desire to take pride in her home or possessions tomorrow. Once the incentive is no longer in place, will she feel motivated to embrace ‘tidy-up time’? It is unlikely. It will take a good deal of pocket money to establish a new habit or social norm for the child when this is the only lever in use.

Similarly, this week’s announcement that the UK government is to trial ‘shopping vouchers’ as an incentive to mothers to breastfeed for 6 months plus may motivate (some less wealthy, cash-conscious) riders, but is it a) scalable to all UK mothers from a financial point of view and b) likely to create a change in core beliefs and attitudes that will lead to sustained behaviour change around breastfeeding? If the un-contested long-term health benefits to a baby and to a mother’s own health (reduced risk of ovarian cancer) is not enough to motivate the elephant to breastfeed, we should simply reach for the UK Plc. cheque book, right?

Wrong! It is time to use EQ in equal measure to IQ. To be effective, a strategy needs to be in place to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path — i.e. create the situation that is likely to produce the best possible ‘path’ and context for change. Targets should be set as the result of a fully formed, engaging and inspiring strategy, not in lieu of one, and those targets should be set with focused concentration on the questions of ‘who cares’ and ‘why.’ Motivating the elephant is as critical as directing the rider if a company wants to move to sustained behaviour change. In organisations where ‘targets’ are set and mandated from on-high, the employee brand guardians have an uphill struggle to on-board staff and motivate behaviour change against a tide of why, harrumph and bah humbug. So, instead of deciding what matters in the ivory towers and then expending energy on reasoning with the riders who will nod, agree and then carry on as before, consider a different start point: Invite the elephants into the Boardroom; let them sit at the table when the CSR strategy is being set and make sure that someone has an eye on the shape of the path. The riders will come along for the ride, but remember — they have only illusory power.