Offering a lot of perks and benefits to employees is often a feather in the cap of business owners and leaders. Those leaders I’ve interacted with, those that give and give and give, often say they do so for a few reasons:

  • “I want to own a company I would want to work for.”
  • “I want my employees to feel valued and appreciated!”
  • “I want to offer a lot of reinforcement to my employees.”

The last one I run into a lot. I often ask business owners how they provide reinforcement to their employees, and they will list off a bunch of things: Donuts on Fridays! Team nights out! Pizza parties! Attendance at conferences! Extra time off! Yearly bonuses! Lists go on and on and on… And then I pose a question pair that, more often than not, catches them off guard:

“So… what are you reinforcing? What do they have to do to get those things?”

Cue the deer-in-the-headlights look.

When leaders have to think about what they are reinforcing with all of these various perks, they often haven’t thought through what behaviors they actually want to see from employees, let alone have they tied it to these benefits. They’re often giving these things for free, requiring nothing of the employees to get access to the perks. For my behavior analyst friends, you might recognize this concept as “Non-contingent reinforcement”, or NCR. While a minimal response may be required to get access (such as being at work during the day in which the “reinforcement” is provided), ultimately nothing is required of the employees to benefit from the leader’s “reinforcers”.

Unfortunately, those same leaders will often have called me in for a performance issue, a productivity problem, or low retention or engagement from their employees. However, these organizations are often already giving away their “good stuff”, with their hearts in the right places, but their performance data isn’t. And because their budgets have been allocated to free perks, they have little to nothing to offer as motivation for quality employee performance and results.

This is what I call the “NCR Curse” in businesses. 

In order to have reinforcers to provide staff, you have to withhold some perks. You have to have objective ways to measure performance, and set clear expectations with your staff. Then, when they do something really great, unleash the r+! Even minimal expectations are better than simply giving your best stuff away for showing up to work.

Now, the struggle that most businesses face when they make this realization is withholding reinforcement that employees are now used to getting. This is a legitimate concern. I typically recommend adding a small contingency, low response effort, then slowly shape the system up to start stretching their performance abilities. Do not simply cut off reinforcement! This will be a motivation killer even for the bare minimum. Think extinction, behavior analyst friends. You have to give them an appropriate alternative behavior that still helps them get access to the reinforcers they’ve become accustomed to, or else brace yourself for problems…

The process of shifting from NCR to DRA should be done slowly and carefully. It’s a shaping process! In almost every case I’ve seen, though, it has been worth the time and effort to shift the culture from free access to performance-contingent reinforcement. If you need help planning this transition, don’t hesitate to reach out to me,