Do your employees “have to” or “want to?”

employeesPretend you are in a railroad tunnel and you see a train entering the opposite end and heading your way. You run as fast as you can to exit the tunnel, yet once you are out and off the track, you stop.

Why? As Doug Wick astutely writes in his Positioning Systems blog, it is the difference between “having to” and “wanting to.” Unless you are on some sort of death-defying training run for a marathon, there is no benefit to continue running once you are out of the tunnel.

Now take a moment to think about some of your employees and their motivation each day; do they “have to” or “want to?” The difference may end up determining whether you meet your numbers this year or not.

The super news for leaders is that the “want to” can absolutely be cultivated…

One of the most fascinating leadership sessions I’ve attended in the last 5 years was delivered by Aubrey Daniels, whose expertise is the science of human behavior. Daniels pointed out that most organizations are managed by negative reinforcement, which is when folks do something because they have to and not because they want to (running out of the tunnel to avoid the train).

Interestingly, the best ways to generate behavior are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. The difference is that negative reinforcement results in the standard “have to” performance level but nothing beyond, whereas positive reinforcement can result in upside that my friends at Modern Survey call “discretionary effort.”

And getting that discretionary “want to” effort from employees creates the most value and is what separates successful organizations from average ones.

Yet it is clearly not easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it. However, that is where Father Time comes in to help. Courtesy of Wick, check out the following rules he says Daniels provides for effective positive reinforcement:

  • Make it personal. People are unique in the things they find reinforcing. Although many people may find the same things to be reinforcing, not everyone will. For example, a large percentage of people at work find money to be highly reinforcing but, believe it or not, some people have all they need or want (and they are not all rich). Therefore, the offer of money as a positive reinforcer for some behavior will not be motivating to such people. Employees often turn down overtime pay because they value their free time more than they value more money.
  • Make it contingent. To be most effective, positive reinforcers must be earned. There must be a direct link between behavior and the delivery of the reinforcer. The best test of this is to ask the question, “What did the person have to do to earn the reinforcer?” The critical word is earn. As you will see, many of the benefits, rewards and even compensation that people receive at work are often not for an accomplishment but for being in the right place at the right time. Benefits are typically rewards for being on the payroll. Raises may be given to everyone on an annual basis. Cost of living adjustments are given across the board. And so it goes.
  • Make it immediate. While it is difficult for most people to understand, positive reinforcement increases the behavior that is occurring when one gets it. Reinforcement that is delayed is likely to increase the behavior occurring when the positive reinforcer is delivered rather than the behavior that it was intended to reinforce. We learn to be superstitious because a behavior, such as re-pushing the button for the elevator, coincides with the arrival of the elevator when there is, in fact, no causal relation between the re-pushing and the speed of arrival. A child, who has earned a reward but receives it only after he starts crying for it, is reinforced for crying, not for what he did to earn it.
  • Make it frequent. One positive reinforcer will not make a habit. Many reinforcers are needed to establish a habit. Video games deliver over 100 reinforcers per minute to the players. Compare that to annual, quarterly, and monthly attempts at reward and recognition that most organizations use to try to create high levels of motivation.

Wonder why people choose to spend their time playing video games for hours on end? Consider what it would be like to have your employees freely spending their time for hours on end helping you accomplish your goals because they want to.

If you want to grow yourself as a leader and save lots of time from your employees only performing at the standard level and nothing more, email me at with the secret password MOTIVATE in the subject line and I’ll send you Aubrey Daniels’ book “Oops – 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money [and what to do instead].”

Chris Wills About Chris Wills

Father Time, or Chris Wills, is passionate about helping other leaders learn and grow and free up time they didn’t think they had. He is the Founder of Student Paths, an organization that better prepares students for their future in college, career and life readiness. You can reach Chris at:

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