B.F. Skinner, the renowned psychologist, invented a container equipped with levers and lights that animals like pigeons or rats could activate in order to gain rewards of food or relief from noises and electric shocks. It was a controlled environment with few options, helping clarify precisely which negative or positive incentive could create a particular behavior. Although people commonly refer to the device as the “Skinner box,” Skinner himself preferred the term “operant conditioning chamber.” The starkness of the chamber and its results made the term “Skinner box” an unflattering emblem of the human personality’s tendency toward basic, repetitive behaviors that others could control.
No one wants their workplace to feel like a Skinner box—an organization that manipulates people via basic incentives rather than understanding and valuing them as individuals. No one wants to feel like a pigeon pecking for a food pellet. Most managers understand this principle, but sometimes, carrots and sticks seem necessary to get every team member on board as quickly as possible. I would argue there are ways to align and boost performance efficiently without resorting to one-size-fits-all methods of employee motivation.
In fact, studies indicate material compensation is a far smaller incentive and far less motivating for employees than a more uniquely satisfying and individualized alignment with an organization’s culture and values, tailored opportunities for professional growth, and a personalized bond with senior leadership. In Andrew Chamberlain’s 2017 Harvard Business Review article “What Matters More to Your Workforce than Money,” the chief economist at Glassdoor confirms the power of these individual motivators, noting:
While pay can help get new talent in the door, our research shows it’s not likely to keep them there without real investments in workplace culture: making a commitment to positive culture and values, improving the quality of senior management, and creating career pathways that elevate workers through a career arc in the organization.
Money offers a simple metric—more of it is generally considered better—but creating a successful culture based on shared values and opportunities for professional growth requires deeper, more lasting connections with individual workers. If we reward people with opportunities that speak to their unique goals—perhaps via a new project or responsibility that brings them closer to those goals—they are less likely to feel manipulated on a behavioral level and more likely to feel meaningfully motivated and valued. Such an approach also enhances retention and an authentic sense of belonging: I am meant to be here, and I derive as much value from the organization as the organization does from me.