I’m Not a Monkey: Keep Your Banana

Why People Leave Companies & Why Reward and Recognition Programs Don’t Work

I’m not a monkey. Offering me a banana or threatening me with a pointed stick will not change my behaviour. Us humans are not simple creatures. How and why we behave is complex, deeply-rooted in our psyche and can’t be easily manipulated by superficial means.

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What’s interesting is so many ‘successful’ global organisations and companies simply do not understand this. Organisations around the globe do not know how to motivate and retain staff nor how to drive consistent creativity and high performance. In the not-so-distant past of the dot com boom, there was a lot of talk about  ‘staff engagement’ and motivation. However, recently the only dialogue I’ve heard in sterile boardrooms is less about ‘motivation’ and ‘personal growth’ and more about behaviour modification. The word ‘modification’ in itself is interesting. To me it suggests a sudden, deliberate and manipulative tweaking of an individuals behaviour. It does not sound to me about actual growth, development and change. We genetically modify our food to rid it from imperfections and maintain consistency through all seasons… Are the big companies attempting the same with their workforce?

I’ve been exposed to a lot of ‘Reward and Recognition’ programs throughout my career. Each one is designed with some tailored ‘carrot’ intended to motivate staff to perform at their best or overcome some obstacle the company perceives its workforce has (for example low sales). In terms of the types of rewards offered in such programs, I’ve seen a vast array across many continents which has included everything from monetary bonuses, movie tickets, free electronic devices, motorbikes to hampers of food and free fruit (possibly bananas).

However, in my opinion these programs commonly fail because organisations don’t understand people and don’t address the values and beliefs of their human workforce. The premise that I get a reward for doing my job well also sends a message that even though I’m capable of performing well, I should only do so for an incentive (over and above my salary) and not because of anything based on passion, drive, values of beliefs.

Why is it that organisations treat us like animals; handing out treats and snacks when we perform a trick to their liking? The reverse is also true in terms of performance management. All organisations have ‘Performance Improvement Plans’ (or PIPs) which essentially contain some threat or negative consequence if your behaviour doesn’t change. For example; if you don’t sell enough, you have frequent meetings with management and if you don’t improve, you lose your job. This plan designed to modify ‘negative’ behaviour rarely works… Why? Because if there’s a genuine competency issue; an issue of skill (not will) where an employee genuinely wants to do well but needs to improve their aptitude to perform at the required level, a punishment is not going to make a difference. They still aren’t been given the skills and the pressure of the performance management spotlight usually makes matters worse for them.  This plan would only work effectively for the lazy sods out there who know how to do the task well but choose to just slack off.

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman working in office. Image shot 2011. Exact date unknown.
Unfair performance management is toxic and destructive

In some better organisations, performance plans are also about support and coaching and have resources and support mechanisms built in to the plan which would help the employee. However in most places – despite what companies preach – this is often all too rare as companies use PIPs as an exit mechanism.

If an organisation has a healthy and positive culture and hires the right people, why do they need to creative incentives for the staff to do their job and stay with the company or design penalties for not doing it ‘well enough’? Why is it that we take the schoolyard, law enforcement, and justice system models of reward and punishment in to allegedly creative workplaces? Punitive systems do not encourage new positive behaviours or bring about genuine change – they just create avoidance of behaviours you punish. I’ll try harder not to be 5 minutes late for work if you punish me for not being punctual, however I will not develop a new behaviour of punctuality and improved time management with a desire to jump out of bed with enthusiasm to ensure I prioritise arriving to my workplace early.

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The question we’re not asking here is; what motivates people? I believe that as humans, we have deep-set beliefs. These beliefs may stem from childhood, our parents guidance, church, community etc. The beliefs then dictate our values. For example, I believe that you should treat other how you wish to be treated so a value I have is respecting others. Its then our values that drive our behaviour.  So in this example, my value of respecting others means that I’m not going to go to turn up to a party, meet someone I don’t know and be instantly rude and arrogant to them. That would be incongruent with my belief and value system.

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Employees who work for negative organisations often suffer depression and anxiety which they take home with them.

My point is; I don’t need to be rewarded with a monetary bonus or free movie tickets to be nice to people, I also don’t need to be performance managed and punished based on the risk of rudeness to keep my behaviour in check. I simply behave the way I do based on my values and beliefs which drive my actions.

Yet organisations constantly fail to address the values and beliefs of their employees. Instead they focus purely on action. The problem is that it’s very difficult to simply modify action without addressing the causal values and beliefs driving it. If you told me tomorrow to go out and start being rude and disrespectful to everyone I meet, I wouldn’t do it. Even if you rewarded me I wouldn’t do it. However if I had a different upbringing in say a violent and disadvantaged community where I had been abused, ripped off and disrespected by everyone I looked up to, perhaps my beliefs would be that humans are generally rotten and evil people and my values would be to trust no one.

Our beliefs and values are part of our psyche and for organisations to be successful and extract success from their people, they need to have a better understanding of this. Sure; every job will contain elements you don’t like and some things that you don’t value. However core values and beliefs need to be in synergy with an organisations methodology and way of working in order to work successfully. When companies and individuals genuinely sing from the same authentic song sheet of aligned values and beliefs that run deep through everything they do, then people will be happy and organisations will profit massively.

Some people feel pressured to sell out on their own values and beliefs to tow the company line.
Some people feel pressured to sell out on their own values and beliefs to tow the company line.

After resigning from my job at Apple last week, I have received over 1000 emails from people all over the world telling me of personal and disturbing stories about mistreatment, bullying, lack of respect and harassment from companies across the globe. These stories speak deeply of individuals having to compromise their own values and beliefs to ‘tow the company line’ for fear of retribution or to keep up with their banana chasing colleagues which makes me sick.

I thank everyone who sent me there stories and for all of us, I wish for an emotionally intelligent corporate future where there is no divide between organisations and humans.

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