Why Incentives Are a Tool of the Lazy Manager

"Let's create an incentive plan!" 

That's the rallying cry for lazy managers. Whether its lagging customer service survey scores, poor productivity, or dismal attendance, lazy managers think the solution is an an incentive.

Or perhaps a disincentive will do the trick! 

A three strikes and yer out sort of thing where bad employees receive marks on their permanent employment record which shouldn't really be called permanent because we all know that employee won't be there for very long anyway.

Why are incentives a tool of lazy managers

The short answer is incentives represent an apparent quick fix, which is tempting to a manager who doesn't want to put in the real work.

Here's a deeper look.

Who is Actually Motivated?

In a 1968 Harvard Business Review article, psychologist Frederick Herzberg made an interesting observation about incentives.

It's the manager who is motivated, not necessarily the employee.

A manager might be motivated to improve customer service survey scores. Perhaps it's part of her job review or she's catching some flak from senior leadership. Maybe the manager is competitive and just wants her department to have the best score.

Whatever the reason, she's desperate for results so she creates an incentive for employees who receive good survey scores.

But what about the employees?

The employees aren't really motivated to deliver better service. Better service isn't even part of the incentive. The incentive focuses on good survey scores, which is a crucial distinction.

So the employees might be motivated to earn the incentive. And some will step outside the lines to do it, even resorting to survey begging.


What the Lazy Manager Misses

A motivated employee wants to do something.

If employees are motivated to deliver better customer service, they'll willingly put in extra effort and find their way around obstacles. Motivated employees will look at poor customer service survey scores as an opportunity to learn and get better, not a disastrous set-back in their quest to earn an incentive.

The lazy manager doesn't see this. 

In my experience, the lazy manager will tell employees that survey scores need to improve. She'll announce the incentive and she might explain why improvement is important to her. ("My boss is really upset about our latest survey scores!")

But she won't explain why the improvement is important to the employees, the company, or even the customers. She also won't make a connection between her goals and what the employees want to achieve.

Lazy managers leave out the "Why?" completely when organizing an incentive plan.

They're too lazy to investigate what's causing lower survey scores. They don't take the time to involve and engage employees. They just want quick action.


A Better Way

Let's say you have an attendance problem.

The lazy manager will resort to an incentive (perfect attendance awards!) or a disincentive. Many customer service teams have elaborate attendance policies that make your head spin. And every one of those managers complains about employees who abuse the policy and do just enough to keep their job.

There's a better way.

  • What if you made work a place employees wanted to come to?
  • What if you had a customer service vision that gave employees a clear purpose?
  • What if you hired people who wanted to do what you wanted them to do?

The problem with this plan is it takes time. The benefit is it works.

Daniel Pink decoded many myths of about employee motivation in his best-selling book, Drive. He discovered that employees really crave three things:

  1. Purpose. There's got to be a point to all this work.
  2. Mastery. We want the ability to be good at what we do.
  3. Autonomy. It's good to have some measure of control over the work we perform.

(You can read a review of the book and it's application to customer service here.)

The short version is lazy managers won't take that time. They'll look for a shortcut and that shortcut is usually an incentive.

When I did research for The Service Culture Handbook, I never once heard a customer service leader talk about incentives as the key to a customer-focused culture. What I did consistently hear was leaders describing building a great service culture as a time-consuming task that required long-term commitment. 

These managers achieved success because they were willing to put in the extra work.