Our Money or Your Life?

Have you ever offered someone extra money to do something for you?  I’m not talking about paying them for work they’ve done or are about to do but offered them a bit extra to give it their all?

I wrote this article, which was subsequently published in a book and kind of wished that I hadn’t as they edited a few key words out which diluted its real message.  Here’s the original unedited text together with a supporting video clip which we made back in 2016!


Maybe you wanted them to try especially hard or go that extra mile and you wanted to incentivize them for doing things exactly the way you wanted it done? Or maybe you offered them that little bit extra because you suspected that the task was intrinsically difficult or tedious and they didn’t really want to do it.  

It’s so easy to do isn’t it?  Whether it’s motivating our child to do homework well or to take their medicine, offering rewards just seems to work. This is extrinsic motivation, persuading people to do things they don’t really want to do by offering them a reward or incentive. It’s always felt a bit uncomfortable to me, dirty even.

I remember a school mate offering his older brother half his lunch money to help him with his homework.  Why wouldn’t the elder brother intrinsically want to help him? What kind of relationship must they have?  It got worse, as time went on, I noticed the same elder brother was being rewarded for NOT doing something.  Yes, you guessed it, he was being incentivised to not bully people.


My curiosity surrounding extrinsic motivation extended to other performance domains.  A father encouraging his 12 yr old son to score three goals today for a handsome monetary reward.  

A friend whose mother motivated her with the promise of driving lessons, but only if she got 9 straight A grades!

Stop and think for a while about the unintended outcomes extrinsic motivation often lead to and the potentially damaging effects on intrinsic motivators in the longer term, including the team and the family as a whole.

I often hear that incentivisation works best in sales.  NO!   It really doesn’t and often CEOs and FDs of organisations, when they become aware of the malpractice and fraudulent behaviour of their sales teams and store managers, are first astonished and then disbelieving of the kind of culture and values that lead to such behaviours. How did things get so bad?

So why do we still do this for safety?  Well it’s for exactly the same reasons as the brother, the parents and the sales directors I guess.  Because it’s easier, its effective short term and we don’t really care enough to optimise the performance in this area with good leadership principles.  

Offering rewards for preventing accidents or reporting near misses says that leadership are not intrinsically driven for safety.  It’s nauseatingly lazy leadership and we know extrinsic motivators will erode the best efforts of others in creating the kind of sustainable excellence in safety performance that our people deserve.

We encourage you to please STOP rewarding safety performance, become a better leader, your people deserve more from you. Start spending time, not your bonus budget by improving the way you communicate your intent and shift attitudes towards wanting to work safely rather than just merely bribing them.

You might be surprised at the things your people might do to ensure they, and their team get the rewards that you promised them!

Discover more about intrinsic motivation, what really drives people, and how to influence behaviour, performance and decision making on our IOSH Certificated Behavioural Science for Leadership in Safety Program. It's the only Behavioural Science program in the world to be formally endorsed by IOSH, the world's largest professional body for safety and health professionals.

What can we learn from this to become better leaders or better safety professionals?

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