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A Lesson from “The Office” on the Power of Fun Incentives

The last episode of one of my favorite sitcoms, The Office, highlighted how crazy incentives can sometimes be powerfully motivating.  Having been given the goal to double sales in the office, the newly appointed, socially awkward manager Andy Bernard sets up an incentive program wherein employees can redeem points for a range of tacky, unexciting and inappropriate gifts.  Sensing the sales incentive plan is a bust, the manager ups the ante by suggesting that if they collectively reach an insanely ambitious number of sales incentive points, the manager will wear a dress or…no…wait…even better…will get a tattoo on his ass.  A tattoo of the employees’ choice of course.

Naturally, hilarity ensues as the team pulls together like never before and even the biggest slouches in the office bust a gasket to reach the target goal. Which they do. In one day.

Now, I’m not sure about the appropriateness of offering up your rear end for a tattoo, but this episode did remind me of an old story about the late Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, who agreed to dance down Wall Street wearing a hula skirt if employees reached an audacious quarterly performance target.

They reached their goals, and the founder of Wal-Mart did indeed do the dance.

So perhaps there are a few lessons from that episode of The Office:

1. If you are going to create incentives, make sure the rewards truly are incentives (stuffed teddy bears didn’t cut it for The Office employees). One simple way to ensure this is to involve bigstock-Magnetic-Man-42240130front line employees in the process of developing any incentive plans. Employees of the fictional office only became motivated once they had input into the incentives and once the incentives actually meant something to them personally.

2. Make sure there is a match between the reward and the effort. There’s an infamous story of a bank executive who, after bringing in millions of dollars of new business, was given a coffee mug. Millions of dollars in new business likely warrants something a wee bit more substantial, conversely, a new car for every time someone suggests a new idea is a wee bit overboard.

3.  Have a clear understanding of what’s being measured. In the episode of The Office, the new manager didn’t have a good grasp on what exactly was being measured or what the ramifications were. Good fodder for a sitcom, bad news for your real life office.

4. Don’t de-motivate people with your incentive plan. Poorly executed or poorly communicated incentive plans can backfire by pitting employees against each other or even by encouraging people to take shortcuts if the right measurements aren’t in place.  Moreover, extensive research into what actually motivates people suggests that external rewards work best for routine, mundane tasks, such as stuffing envelopes. But external rewards for creative tasks can actually often reduce the intrinsic motivation people feel for doing more creative work.

5.  Adding fun to any incentive process can only help.  There’s something to be said for the idea of creating hilarious, even outrageous incentives to motivate people.  This concept can even work at an individual level, where people make funny wagers with each other to encourage them to change their behaviors or reach a certain goal.

Michael Kerr, September 2011,

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