Hearts and minds vs carrots and sticks

16th January 2012


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  • Employee engagement ,
  • Corporate governance ,
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Can incentives really drive changes in behaviour and influence attitudes towards the environment?

Amy Wilson
Head of business at Global Action Plan

A key part of the transformation required to slow down climate change is creating a fundamental shift in how individuals perceive the environment and their impact on it. You want staff to understand how their actions impact on your organisation’s carbon emissions and to want to change their habits to reduce their impact.

However, to truly engage staff and change their behaviour, you need to understand the barriers preventing them from changing and also how to motivate them to change. Short-term bribery in the form of incentives just isn’t going to cut it. You may even run the risk of devaluing the positive behaviour you are trying to embed by indicating that an individual needs to be paid to do it.

In some employee engagement programmes incentives are used to gain staff interest, for example in the form of free giveaways. These may be successful in encouraging an immediate improvement in behaviour, but building a change in behaviour on a transaction that does not engage with an individual’s values is usually very vulnerable when the incentive is removed or not desired any more. In using an incentive, the individual’s free choice in terms of what motivates them and what interests them is not engaged, making any change in behaviour transient and temporary.

Incentives can also be completely ineffectual where they are not desired in the first place, or where they are not considered enough of a reward to carry out the requested action. In some cases the provision of an incentive may even deter or detract from the reason behind the desired action (for example, to reduce your organisation’s carbon emissions), so diluting the message you are trying to get across.

A more effective approach to driving change is to reward and showcase positive behaviour. This also avoids offending anyone who is already carrying out the positive action and as such would have missed out on an incentive scheme aimed at those who are not.

By publicly rewarding the desired behaviour you are engaging staff in a more meaningful way by clearly demonstrating what the preferred behaviour is and showing appreciation of those doing it. Staff who then follow suit and modify their behaviour are doing so for a different motivation than just to receive their prize. They are motivated to do what is deemed to be the right thing by the company. And this type of meaningful engagement around a habit is much more likely to shift values and lead to long-term change.

Changing behaviour is complex and takes time, but if you understand the motivators and barriers involved, provide accessible and relevant information and use clear messaging around what the preferred alternative is, you really can start to influence habits and values.

David Symons
Director at WSP Environment & Energy

Rachel leaves her Denver home in a hurry. In the rush she leaves on her living-room lights, but doesn’t worry because it’s not expensive to leave them burning. She jumps into her large family car, which is the quickest and easiest way to travel because fuel is so cheap, and heads off.

In Bristol, Marielle is at the end of her day. She drives her BMW, one of the low-CO2 versions chosen to get the lowest tax bracket, and with her children in the car she can use the car-share lane between Bristol and Bath. This means her journey is quick and much nicer than the packed commuter train.

It’s all about choices, the big ones and the little ones. We make decisions every day and every time we do, they are based on a rational choice. Large decision or small, our approach is broadly similar: “What will work out best for me?”

This is why incentives matter and can be effective. They can serve as a reward or as a penalty and they are everywhere. You slow down when you go past a speed camera – the incentive to avoid a fine. You shop at the January sales to get a bargain. I take the train into my London office because it’s far quicker than driving, and I turn off the lights when I go out to save money and not waste electricity. If you think about it, incentives have probably influenced almost every decision you’ve made in the past four hours.

To be effective, incentives (and penalties) have to be designed well and be relevant. Most Groupon discounts, for example, don’t appeal to me because I’m not interested in what they offer. And if the incentive is only a short-term offer, which stops before I’ve formed a habit, then there’s a risk that I’ll revert back to my old behaviour as soon as it’s removed.

Environmental decisions – or pro-environmental behaviours as the industry calls them – are no different. You can change individuals’ behaviours by encouraging the positive and providing disincentives for the bad. There’s nothing wrong with this.

At WSP, our personal carbon-tracking programme rewards staff through their salary for keeping their carbon footprint low outside work. Our research shows this programme alone reduces participants’ carbon footprints by 10% in the first year they take part. Employees tell us that they’re more likely to keep their eye on the heating, turn off the lights and reduce their travel. And it’s fun.

If we are committed to improving the environment, reducing the harmful negative impacts and improving the good, then using incentives will deliver our aims faster and more effectively than without. And that has to be a good thing. The alternative – just relying on persuasion – can work of course, but why ignore an approach that really does work?


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