The Power of Hidden Rewards in Creating and Sustaining Change


Gaining buy-in for change is central to the success of any business process improvement. People often persist in old behaviors, even those that are not serving them or their organizations well, because those behaviors lead to subtle, often invisible rewards. And rewards are what motivate most of our behavior. This Article describes an example of how examining and altering rewards for unwanted behaviors can be a powerful factor in creating buy-in and positive behavior change. 

The Case of Hidden Rewards

When Alan pointed out costly errors to his crew, it often came out as sarcasm. Through his 360 degree feedback, Alan learned that his sarcasm created distance between him and the crew.

In response to this Alan said, “I need to let them know when they mess up.” He was right. As the operations manager of a large, commercial carting company, he leads a team of over 60 drivers and a fleet of 40 garbage trucks. Occasionally drivers will miss a pickup, and the customer, often a restaurateur or retailer, will be stuck with smelly or bulky garbage for a few days. Alan, rightfully, needs to give them feedback about their error so they won’t repeat it.

Alan has an easy going personality with a clever sense of humor that enables him to get along well with almost everyone. When he gives this constructive feedback he will inject his cleverness in an attempt to make the feedback snappy and conversational. Often it comes out as sarcasm.

Through his 360 degree feedback, Alan learned that his sarcasm was perceived as condescending and hurtful, even to the rough and tumble garbage men. (Yes, they are all men.) Over time, some of the men grew angry or fearful of Alan, and avoided engaging with him, not knowing when they would receive one of his sarcastic jabs. Among other things, this avoidance reduced both their engagement and the amount of useful information and suggestions that would otherwise bubble up to Alan.

When we discussed the feedback, Alan was surprised and disappointed that the guys perceived him this way. He went on to explain that he used sarcasm with others, too, as a way of saying something difficult with some humor. He had never realized his negative effect on people. When we discussed changing this behavior, he explained that this would be a difficult habit for him to break, since he had been clever and sarcastic for most of his life.

Rewards for the Old Behavior

I asked Alan what he felt when he gave feedback sarcastically. He said that it felt good, and good in three ways. First, he felt like a good manager by addressing a problem. Second, he avoided confrontation by using humor. And third, he enjoyed being clever and jocular. (Come to think of it, don’t we all enjoy making clever remarks?) I thought, “Wow. Three powerful rewards for this one behavior. This could be hard for him to change.” So I shared this thought with him, and he confirmed his satisfaction with his clever sarcasm.

Looking for Rewards for the new Behavior

I kept on my behaviorist hat and proposed that we look for some rewards that could outweigh the three that made sarcasm so enjoyable, or as B.F. Skinner would have said, “change the balance of consequences”. So I asked Alan, which would be more important to him, feeling clever, or having a team of engaged drivers who stayed in relationship with him. As a responsible leader, he chose better relationships with the drivers.

We now had a motivation to change, albeit a tentative one. Next we had to find a substitute behavior for sarcasm. In no time we landed on an alternative; making simple, straightforward statements followed by a question. For example, he could say, “You missed the stop at Choi’s Deli last night. Do you know what happened?” instead of saying something sarcastic like, “Do you have something against Mrs. Choi?” To give the new behavior some legs, we gave it a memorable name, “straight observation followed by a question”*.  Then, he practiced it a few times on some common scenarios. Alan named some common problem situations, and tried out the “straight observation + question” approach. He took to it quickly, and seemed smooth and authentic in our practice sessions.

Even though he was pretty adept at the new behavior in our coaching session, I wasn’t sure he was motivated enough to resist the temptation of sarcasm in the heat of the workday. So I suggested we contrast the old and new behaviors in terms of their levels of maturity. He recognized that “straight observation + a question” was a more mature leadership style than sarcasm. Being a relatively young manager, Alan appreciated this difference, and liked seeing himself as a leader who would choose the more mature alternative.

Hardwiring the Change

To reinforce his momentum, I asked Alan to keep a log of these constructive feedback opportunities, recording what he did, what he thought and what he felt. In our next meeting, he reported several successful conversations, including both recognizing the temptation for sarcasm, and choosing the new alternative. To sum up, Alan’s awareness of the two new rewards, better relationships and feeling like a mature leader, along with his practice helped him make and maintain this constructive behavior change.

Adapting the Change to Process Reengineering

When people work on process improvements that involve behavior change, it is always useful to examine the subtle rewards for the old patterns, and then build in counterbalancing rewards for the new ones.

*A note on labeling: Choosing a name for the new behavior can be important. Since most trigger situations happen quickly, a memorable label that describes the new behavior can help the client recognize the opportunity and then choose and enact the new behavior quickly and effectively, all in the heat of the moment.

Daniel White

Daniel White

Daniel White is an executive coach, organization development consultant, and leadership facilitator and who specializes in helping leaders, teams and whole organizations achieve constructive change. This includes working with leaders to strengthen their ability to inspire their stakeholders and sustain change over the long term. He appreciates the complexity and dynamic nature of leading in modern, global organizations. He uses this orientation to help clients develop leadership approaches that both fit and guide their particular organization. He serves as coach and facilitator enabling leaders to develop new behaviors and mind-sets that significantly enhance their effectiveness. He uses an engaging and supportive but direct style which enables him to develop trust, rapport and positive results with clients. He is both pragmatic and inspirational as he helps clients surmount barriers to achieve measurable and sustainable results. Prior to his role as a leadership coach and consultant, Dan served as Director of Executive & Organization Development at Citibank. There he implemented original and effective approaches to organization effectiveness and leadership development. Dan holds an MA in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and a BA in Psychology from the University of Rochester. He has published book on leadership coaching and articles on innovation and career management.
Daniel White

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