Are your incentives giving a conflicting message?

“You get what you incentivise”
Peter Diamandis

Building a brand, engaging team members, delivering a consistently good customer experience, and ensuring the back office and front lines work in sync. These things have much in common, yet one important element they share is often ignored or given short shift—incentives.

Today it seems like the idea of incentives is almost passé. After all, who needs them when inspired, passionate workforces are doing what they love with their tribe to strains of Kumbaya playing in the background? Or when customers are madly advocating for their favourite organisations with every like and retweet?

But while that may be true for a few organisations (very few in the scheme of things), a little incentive can go a long way to helping you get to that thing you’re heading towards. And in those organisations, it is more likely that rather than there being an the absence of any incentives, the incentives are structured to help get those results.

They come in all sorts of stripes and they mostly sit in two buckets: targets or rewards. But I’m not going to get into what kinds of incentives work to drive the desired actions or don’t. This is about the underlying drivers, not what specific magical incentive you can use in your organisation.

While figuring out what (if any) incentives to use can be a challenge rife with conflicts and pitfalls, there is one thing that remains as true for them as any other aspect of business: if the incentives you’re offering don’t align with who you are, what you say you care about and what you want people to do, the chances you’ll get the result you wanted are pretty much zip. As the quote at the top of the article says, “you get what you incentivise.”

Want your sales people to focus on building customer relationships? Don’t tie incentives to transactional sales results.

Want your employees to resolve customers’ issues when they call? Don’t measure how many calls they do in an hour or day.

Want your old customers to stay loyal? Don’t give new customers a better deal.

I’m sure everyone reading this can come up with at least one example of a target or reward that was completely out of alignment like the examples above. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t stumble across an example (or five).

One organisation I’ve been working with is a great illustration of the impact of not considering incentives when trying to shift the direction of an organisation.

They have embarked on a big push to be more customer-focused in the way they do things. However the employees, as the ones who have to take up the mantle, are left wondering how serious the leadership is about it because the way they are measured hasn’t changed. There was no way for them to be rewarded (personal satisfaction aside) for what they do (or don’t do).

As a result they felt caught between the incentive and a hard place. The incentive was giving a conflicting message about what to do and how to do it. And when push comes up against incentive, people will do what they are incentivised to do.

Across all misaligned incentives once thing is constant: you need to have your identity foundations of purpose and values in place. Those two enduring elements, combined with the goal you’re trying to accomplish, should be the backbone of how you decide what incentive to use. Without them, there is nothing to align to and you’re likely to end up with a ramshackle collection of incentives that conflict.

The results will get you somewhere, although likely not where you wanted to be.

So, are your incentives getting the results you wanted? No. Then it’s time to look past what they are to why you’re using them.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.