Birds, Employees, and Rewards

By on October 15, 2007
Birds, Employees, and Rewards

Recently, the world of behavioral science lost one of its most interesting and remarkable subjects. An African Grey parrot named Alex, who had learned to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, and quantities up to and including 6 died unexpectedly at the age of 31. Alex taught the scientific community a great deal about avian intelligence and sparked some heated debate regarding the concept of language. But, as important as any of this, the experiments with Alex taught us how to elicit appropriate behaviors.

Organizational success, in a large part, depends on its ability to elicit appropriate behaviors from employees on a regular basis. So, what can organizations learn about shaping the behavior of its employees from the incredible life of Alex the African Grey parrot? Plenty. Here are a few lessons from Alex that can help you develop an effective Employee Rewards Program:

  1. Identify the specific behavior you want to promote – The first step in promoting behavior is naming it. What behavior do you want to see? What behaviors will have the greatest positive impact? When Alex’s research trainers decided to teach him to count, they began by targeting a number (1). This number would provide a good starting point and could be built on for future learning. It would set him apart from other birds trained to mimic speech and to do other “tricks.” Likewise, when your organization targets the behaviors you want to promote, consider if it makes good sense and if it will have a positive impact. You can start with broad range of behaviors like “improve friendliness,” but should then tighten its focus on a single observable behavior. To that end, the behavior could be, to “thank every customer.” As in the case of Alex, it provides a behavior to build on and will have a strong positive impact. Being specific makes it easier to measure and reward in a way that promotes success.
  2. Identify an appropriate reward – In the case of Alex, the reward was based on what he found interesting or tasty. It was practical and effective to teach him to identify a peanut using a peanut as a reward. The same concept can be applied to your rewards program. Employees might find taking friends to lunch on the company’s dime rewarding. In addition to being rewarding, it is an appropriate reinforcement for being friendly. To ensure that rewards serve their purpose, it’s a good idea to use a survey to identify rewards that employees find most desirable. In my personal experience, I have found “I ♥ Quality” buttons to be less than rewarding, but something like this is often the “reward” attached to reward programs. It is important to remember that an expensive, solidly built plan can be completely derailed by a less than rewarding reward. Do you think Alex would have accomplished all he did for the promise of a single poppy seed?
  3. Give out prizes publicly – When teaching Alex to identify objects, researchers set the bird on an empty perch and allowed him to watch as a second researcher named the desired object and received it as a reward. The researcher makes a big production out of receiving the reward because he/she knows that the more delicious and desirable the peanut seems, the more likely the bird is to copy the behavior. After watching this several times, Alex decided to elicit the behavior in order to get in on the reward. This phenomenon is called “Modeling” and it is one of the uniquely “human” learning concepts that sets us apart from the animals. This is especially relevant to our rewards program. Since everyone will not win, it is essential that employees can be influenced to behave properly by simply witnessing others exhibiting the behavior and getting rewarded for it. If you had to reward everyone, every time, it would be impractical and too costly to be worth the organization’s resources and efforts. Learning through modeling is what makes a rewards program work. The lottery works for roughly the same reason. “If I spend that dollar, that could be me!”
  4. Support the new behavior – Often times, an organization asks for one behavior, while rewarding another. For example, an organization might work to promote new ideas and innovation from employees while using a performance appraisal form that punishes failed projects and mistakes. Once a behavior is learned or promoted, it needs to be supported systematically to survive. In the case of Alex, the concept of identifying the number of items grew and continued to be used as he learned other concepts. Asking and rewarding performance to questions like “How many blue?” or “How many peanuts?” kept the counting concept fresh and rewarding. In the case of our rewards program, supporting the new behavior of “thanking every customer” by adding a “friendliness to customers” dimension to the performance appraisal form would provide a way continue and build on the rewards program behavior. It is good practice in any organization to check the alignment of their performance improvement system with their mission and goals. Often, when they do so, they find systems that do not support each other and, in many cases, work against each other. Ideally, all systems should be working together to move the organization in the desired direction.

One of the great lessons the science of psychology has taught us during its history is that although we seem much different from animals, we react and behave in a similar manner. If we are rewarded for a behavior, we tend to do it again. When we want to influence our dog’s behavior (to sit), we find ways to reinforce that behavior (doggie treats), just as when we want to influence our child’s behavior (make the bed), we find ways to reinforce that behavior (video game). So whether you are setting up an Employee Rewards Program, or teaching your bird to talk, you can benefit from the lessons learned from Alex the African Grey Parrot.

About Lou Gerst

Lou is the Practice Leader for Strategic Talent Development with the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College.

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