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Rewarded Employees Work Harder

Rewarded rats work harder. This was the insight of psychologist B.F. Skinner had that has influenced psychology, education, and business for more than half a century.

It appears that rewarded people also work harder – if we can only figure out the right rewards, and the right timing of the rewards, and how to transfer those rewards so that there is internal motivation to continue to work in the absence of immediate rewards, etc. It turns out to be a more complicated problem than it appeared in the laboratory.

Psychologically healthy workplaces, like Mercy Health System in Janesville, WI, have tried to understand this process by thinking about what they really value and how they can effectively provide recognition to employees who reflect their values.

Here is the first thing they did right. They started by really taking a look at the most important values of the organization. Caring for the needs of people who are injured or sick or worried is an important responsibility. It is not just an interaction between doctors and patients. When a patient walks into a hospital or clinic, he or she interacts with office personnel, nurses, technicians, food service providers, and maintenance workers, among others. Each of them has an opportunity to be a caring presence for the patient. They can also be a caring presence for each other as co-workers. And it is the establishment of a caring organization that is the top value for Mercy Health System. This is what they wanted to reward.

The second thing they did right was to choose to focus on the employees who were already doing the right thing. Rather than run a publicity campaign to make people more aware of the need to care for each other, they focused on the real examples of employees who were already doing it. They knew it is possible to be this kind of caring employee because there were (many) real life examples of caring happening every day already.

The third thing they did right was that they focused on the little things as well as the big things. Hospitals have examples of heroic interventions that save lives. But the caring organization also exemplified in the an aide who spends a few extra moments holding the hand of a patient worrying about surgery tomorrow, the maintenance person who cleans up a mess without embarrassing someone who is sick and in pain, and even the person who holds the elevator for a last minute passenger. The little things, done on a daily basis, have as much, or more, impact as the heroic actions. So the little things need to be acknowledged too.

Mercy Health System established a recognition program for anyone who showed a caring action within the course of their everyday work. Anyone could be nominated for a caring action. And anyone could nominate a fellow employee for something they saw him or her do. The recognition is given in the form of a simple pin that the employee’s supervisor gives to acknowledge the caring behavior. There is no limit to the number of pins you can earn. There is apparently no limit to the number of pins you can wear either, judging by the number of employees who keep adding pins to their uniforms. The caring culture of the organization has grown through this simple program to reward behavior that aligns with the values of the hospital system.

What do you do to recognize employees who embody the values of your company?

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» 7/8/09: Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs from Three Star Leadership Blog

Every week I select five excellent posts from this week's independent business blogs. This week, I'm pointing you to posts on leadership coaching, leadership lessons, rewards, the future, and lessons from vacation. Read More


Koinonia Homes, a National Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award winner in the not-for-profit category, has a similar "pins of pride" program to recognize employees for taking the initiative to develop professional skills or enhance the quality of services the organization provides. You can read more about the workplace practices that earned Koinonia Homes the award here.

Great post. The takeaway for me was the second point: concentrating on those already doing the right thing. Thanks.

Annie Zirkel (07/ 3/09) said:

Great article.
What it sounds like to me is that you are talking the qualities of genuine Aloha. Creating a collective consciousness - so to speak. It is much easier to be kind, gentle, compassionate, considerate when that is reinforced and expected. Though I've only seen it work when those at the helm have genuine buy-in.

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. John Weaver published on July 1, 2009 7:48 AM.

Unemployment and Anxiety Rising was the previous entry in this blog.

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