Do bonuses bring out the worst in people?

13 June 2023

Evolution has given us an autopilot, the reptilian brain. Which works like a Mafia henchman, fast and effective, unscrupulous. Thinking takes time, morality only distracts. 

Behaviour by the reptilian brain we exhibit in distress, as a precaution or simply because our stomach is growling. So as soon as danger is imminent - and hunger is, we start doing the things that need to be done. Action, action, action. In doing so, we rely entirely on what has been successful in the past. Alternatives are not explored. There is no room for creativity for a while. Wasted time and the outcome is also uncertain. Tunnel vision, we call it. In times of crisis, we prefer no strategy, survive first!

If a bonus triggers an involuntary response, it is interesting to know what behaviourists, with Pavlov and Skinner as the best-known representatives, say about the influence of positive reinforcement - in our case, a bonus:

  1. The effect of bonuses is greater if you give them right after performance. This is because if there is too much time in between, the recipient no longer establishes a relationship between the behaviour and the reward.
  2. You only give a bonus if the target has actually been met.
  3. Behaviour that is no longer rewarded disappears.
  4. Unpredictable rewards produce more effective behavioural change than highly predictable rewards. 


Compare it to a slot machine, which pays out money at unexpected times, which has an unimaginably addictive effect on people. The fear of losing a bonus - rather than the hope of winning it - plays a prominent role in this. You will read more about that in a moment.

In any case, then, an important lesson is that if you want to use bonuses to boost employee productivity, you would do well to put butter on the bones immediately. However, this is often not the case in the practice of bonus systems: payouts are usually once a year. A link between the behaviour and the reward is then hard to find. Rewards are also sometimes paid out if the agreed goal has not been achieved. For instance, because the result was almost achieved, or because circumstances turned out afterwards to be tougher than estimated beforehand. So that does not work.

Bonus schemes should be maintained as long as the behaviour remains necessary. And finally, bonus payments should possess a degree of unpredictability. Again, this is not always the case in practice. Instead, they are made as predictable as possible by outcome agreements.

This blog was written by Rolf Baarda

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