Employee incentives have a history of encouraging competition amongst teams. Are we going far enough to harness to power of peer-to-peer motivation and, how we can protect our teams from the negative impacts of competition?

Reward and recognition is a time served tool in an employer’s motivational arsenal. In fact it dates back much further than any of us may have imagined. Jay Whitehead explains in his HRO Today article that the first recorded act of employee motivation was conducted by Cyrus The Great, who was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire (known by us today as Iran). His method of motivational reward took the form of a ceremony involving a shoulder pat, a beverage, and a coin featuring Cyrus’ head. This was to incentivize construction workers to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in 538 B.C.

While employee incentives have moved on a little these days, the premise still remains the same. Incentivizing is effectively the dangling of a carrot to encourage effective working practices that will hopefully exceed the set objectives. However, as Cyrus recognized, there is power in the publicity of incentivization. He could quite easily have given his workers a coin in a discrete manner, but he recognized that a public ceremony added value to the gifting. His reasonings behind this are unknown, it may be that he wanted to incite the competitive nature among his employees so that they would all strive to be better than each other, alternatively it may be that he thought workers would be inspired by the success of others or that the pressure from family and loved ones to receive the coin would increase output. Whatever his reasoning, it is a system that appears to have worked as it has been adopted by workplaces across the globe.

It is the sociological impact of incentives that is worth exploring a little further, what is it about incentives that drives us the most? Is it the physical prize that delivers the most impact or is it the pride or being recognized that leaves the longest mark? Do we as humans perform better when an element of peer pressure is present?

Many of the mechanisms that are put in place to measure success in incentives highlight the top performers within teams, this is done through various methods. Leader boards on digital reward and recognition platforms, the announcement of top performers at an internal meeting, a mention in the internal newsletter or at an annual awards and gala dinner are all examples of this communication in action. While this communication is taking place, all too often, its importance is overlooked. The competitive nature has almost become a perfunctory task that is limited to the announcement of winners, maybe there is greater value to be gained from the peer-to-peer element of incentivization.

There is significant reasoning that suggests that the power of peer-to-peer incentivisation can have a deeper value than we currently give it credit for. A 2017 study by Susanna Gallani analyzed the motivational methods undertaken by a hospital in California. In short, the hospital was trying to improve hand-hygiene to reduce the risk of infection. The study found that “while monetary incentives generated a more pronounced improvement, it was short lived. On the other hand peer pressure techniques generated a change in organizational behavior that persisted beyond the removal of the incentive”. However, it must be said that there is a careful line to tread, while the power of peer pressure looks to be positive it has the ability to be counterproductive. While competition can create excitement it also has the capability to create anxiety, a study which has been discussed in the Harvard Business Review looking at the impact workplace policies had on employees found that, “when the employment policies elicited excitement, employees were significantly more likely to use creativity. When managers felt anxious about employment policies, they were significantly more likely cut corners or sabotage colleagues.” This same study went on to look at how organizations can impact whether a competition creates excitement or anxiety the results suggested that a competition that focused on a loss would make managers more anxious, where as when the emphasis was on a win made managers more excited, “looming negative consequences of lagging behind can trigger anxiety and prompt people to resort to mis-selling, fraud, and lying to customers.”

In short, if a campaign of peer-to-peer motivation is to be implemented in an effective manner it has to be created in an environment that has the wellbeing of its team at its heart and is working to improve its employee engagement. Incentive programs can work harder to maximize the benefits of peer to peer motivation but this must be actioned through a carefully thought out commucations program that encourages positivity and team ethos.

About the Author

Anthony Kelly is the head of new business marketing for DRPG in London and its subsidiaries. He oversees the marketing team in the development and implementation of marketing strategies to support the overall business plan and drive business forward.

Anthony began his marketing career back in 2008 after studying business management & marketing at the University of Stirling. He joined the events and incentive travel industry in 2015 after spending a number of years in the engineering, oil & gas and transport & logistics industries. Anthony is Head of Marketing at Penguins a leading UK incentive travel house and events agency.