Let’s Treat Employees Like Pigeons Using Pay-for-Performance

My dogs are well behaved.  I have taken extra time training them to be sure they come when they are called and to obey certain commands.  It’s necessary because I take them for walks every day. I let them off lease so they can run.  If we encounter a horse or a dog that might be a bit too aggressive I call them over to be put on lease and avoid any unnecessary confrontations or drama.

I don’t explain why.  They don’t know why and they don’t need to know why. They don’t understand how they might accidentally startle a horse and possibly throw a rider.  They don’t understand how an aggressive dog might start a fight.  They just understand the commands, “come” and “stay.”  People (employees) need to know why.

If you use pay for performance you are using Operant Conditioning and Behaviorism to control peoples’ behaviors.  You are using techniques of B.F. Skinner one of the most famous of all behaviorists of the 20th century.  B.F. Skinner did experiments with animals (dogs, pigeons, rats etc.) and then drew conclusions about people from those experiments.

Skinner would use pigeons to demonstrate how behavior can be influenced with something called operant conditioning.  If the animal did something the scientist desired it would receive a reward.  The delivery of the reward caused the animal to repeat the behavior.  Skinner believed that science must study observable behavior only. Although he did not deny the existence of the individual mind and the possibility internal mental states he was only willing to explain (using his theory) why people did what they did through observable behavior and conditioning.  Skinner didn’t think people needed to know why.

Pay-for-Performance is the system of reinforcement most organizations use today to reward top performers.  It is operant conditioning.  We are using the same techniques Skinner used to train pigeons.  So if you are using Pay-for-performance to motivate your employees to act or to sell you might ask yourself if it is working.  Are the employees capable of understanding why a task needs to be performed and doing it without contingent reinforcement or are they independent adults who are capable of understanding why something is so important and doing it without a bribe?

We need an alternative.  We need the 3 “A’s” of engagement.


The first “A” is for Anxiety.   Anxiety is often considered a negative force (emotion) that causes stress and stagnation.    Positive anxiety, on the other hand, is the urgent emotional need to act before an opportunity is lost.   Positive anxiety is useful for learning and development.  A balance between the challenge a person experiences doing a task and the skills he/she uses to perform those tasks will generate positive anxiety.  This positive anxiety is required for engagement and necessary for learning.

Unfortunately feeling comfortable (or satisfaction) usually does not create development.  Neither does negative stress.  Unfortunately the stress most employees feel today is negative and caused by pressure to perform using threats or bribes.  Pay for performance policies and/or performance appraisal ratings are substituted for the required positive stress and results in a reduction in engagement.  Positive anxiety is intrinsic (internal), self-imposed, and naturally healthy.

People can use positive anxiety to make positive change.  A great example of positive anxiety in practice is seen in the process of learning “speed reading.”  Many “speed reading” teaching techniques require the student to push themselves to reading speeds 5 or even 10 times faster than their normal pace.  This “push” creates positive anxiety and trains the eyes and the brain to adapt to a much higher speed.  The push creates positive change even though during this push causes an experience of anxiety.

It is not only permissible for leaders to create positive anxiety in the work environment for employees, it is their obligation.  Leaders have the most influence over the messages that come from the work environment.


The second “A” is   for Autonomy.  Autonomy is the freedom to determine actions and decisions.  Autonomy is a higher standard than just empowerment.  Empowerment is the act of giving power to someone.  Empowerment suggests there must be an authorization by management to perform a task or responsibility.  Autonomy is about freedom for self-government or self-management.  With autonomy the employee decides when and how to act to solve a problem.  No authorization by management is necessary.

Autonomy is best provided when employees understand the principles under which they can make decisions on their own.  This doesn’t mean specific processes and/or detailed steps are missing.  Toyota, for example, has four principles employees must follow to work toward improvement in their plants.

Principle 1 states that all hand-offs between internal suppliers and internal customers must have clear steps in a specific sequence and these steps are defined by a customer.  The second principle states that every supplier-to-customer hand-off is direct and unambiguous.  The third principle demands that the pathway for these hand-offs must be simple and direct.  The forth principle states that improvements can be made by anyone and at any time as long as those changes are done using the scientific method.  This final principle is the most influential for allowing employees to demonstrate autonomy.   In these principles the decisions are dependent upon what employees want and not on decisions from above.


The final “A” is for Advancement.  Employees need to see how their efforts truly make a difference.  This advancement must not just be progress for the sake of progress.  It must be in context of a higher purpose and vision.  In order for advancement to happen the progress seen by employees must be toward a vision and aligned with the values of the organization.

Three elements are needed to achieve advancement.  First, we must understand the aim of our actions. The aim is also often known as the mission or purpose.  It’s the “why” the dogs and pigeons don’t need and can’t understand.   We must be able to answer the question, “Why are we taking this action?  What’s the point?”  For example, if our task is to clean a table we must know for what purpose the table will be used.  Is it a table to clean fish or to do open heart surgery?  The purpose will determine the method we decide to use for our task.

Secondly, we must have feedback from our tasks and that feedback should be immediate (or as close to immediate as possible) and frequent.  Without immediate and frequent feedback we will lose motivation.  The delay between action and information must be as short as possible to optimize engagement and minimize frustration.  The other day I planted grass seed.  Although I know it takes about 10 days to germinate and to show little sprouts, every day after planting I watered the spots and looked for evidence of progress. It was frustrating for those first 10 days with no feedback.

Finally, we must see progress toward achieving our aim.  Without progress frustration will emerge and frustration will damage engagement.  The combination of taking action toward a clear compelling purpose, receiving feedback, and seeing credible progress will create the experience of advancement.

The experience employees have with these “A”’s generates powerful employee engagement.   The “A”’s create a recipe for success and will help executive to achieve the organization results they seek.   All three elements work as a system.  They must all be present.  Too often leaders leave out one or more of these A’s.  When they do engagement and results suffer.  Too often they forget about explaining the “why” and just present the reward with pay-for-performance.  They do that because we have all been influenced by B.F. Skinner.  His operant conditioning is limiting us.

If you are using contingent pay-for-performance (do this and you will get that) you are treating employees like pigeons.  You might not even need to explain why they must do a task.  You may just need to pay them (reinforce) when they do what you want.   You may want to change your methods.  You may want to think about treating them like adults who can use logic, critical thinking, and autonomy to be engaged and not controlled like pigeons.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.