Bill Sims Company

Bill Sims Company

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Battery Cables

It was about 2:30 p.m. and I had just finished a speaking assignment for the Tarheel Safety Chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are a lively group of safety professionals who asked me to come and speak about behavior change, which I did. While there I learned a lot about some changes coming down the pipeline from OSHA, from my new BFF, Bob, with OSHA (more on that later).

After the meeting, I packed up my computer and projector and put them in the trunk of my car, sliding into the front seat. As I’ve done a million times before, I put the key in the switch and turned it to the right, convinced in my mind that I was about to hear that good old V8 rumble to life, one of my top ten favorite PICs in life. (Thanks again, Aubrey, for that helpful acronym!)

However, while I had the A and B parts down perfectly for this task (antecedent and behavior) good old Mr. C (consequence) showed up in a totally unexpected form: NOTHING HAPPENED.

“Dang!” I said. “Dead battery.”

Even a shade tree mechanic like me can figure that one out. Next, I did a root cause analysis in my brain to determine why and how this had happened.

Oh yeah, I remember now, I spent an hour in my car before giving my speech and plugged my notebook into my cigarette lighter to juice it up so I could finish a live Webinar that I had promised to do with another company from the parking lot outside the Tarheel meeting.

Technology is so cool. I had my own little WiFi  bubble right there in the parking lot. I was feeling like the incredible techno-guy.

Who’d have thought my notebook could suck that much juice out of a car battery that fast?

Guess what?

It can.

It did.

I morphed quickly from incredible techno-guy to a pathetic “girlie man.”

My first call was to the roadside assistance number to see how fast they could get someone to jump-start my car. Then a little voice in my head said “Bill, remember you put some battery cables in the trunk for emergencies like this one.”

BAM! Hey there they are, in that orange case. Now, all I need is a kind, helpful person with a good battery to help me boost my engine!

I looked two spaces over and saw a guy pulling out of his parking space and two ladies chatting by their car as well. By the looks of things, he was a repairman just finishing his lunch break. I summoned up my courage and walked over to him. I had to act now, or never.

“Scuse me sir,” I said, “but I’ve got a dead battery . . . would you mind giving me a boost? I have my cables ready . . .” (I showed him the orange cables.) The look on his face went from apprehension to a half smile and he rolled down his window and we shook hands.

Then this kind knight pulled his truck up to my car and we connected up the cables, using the appropriate safety technique I had learned at the ripe old age of 17 from Mr. Jones, a teacher who had also described to me what it was like to have a car battery explode on you. That mental image stuck with me— a very good antecedent.

In short order, my V8 sprang back to life, its deep throaty growl as good as ever! Not bad for a ride that has been running against the wind for over 94,368 miles. (Hey, come to think of it, I’ve been doing the same thing!) As Han Solo told Luke, “It ain’t the years kid, it’s the miles.”

I felt very grateful to the Repair Guy. I wanted to DO SOMETHING, to give something back to him.

And that’s where I went wrong.

I shook the man’s hand and gave him $5 cash. It was my last $5, and it was all I could think of at the time, and I was so grateful to him, that I figured it was better than nothing.

The smile that had appeared on his face after helping me became ever so slightly muted, an imperceptible change that no one saw but me.

“No, no, I don’t need any money,” he said.

I realized immediately that I’d make a mistake in offering him the money. I hadn’t thought through the impact of this “reinforcer” on this particular individual.

But, this whole sequence (just like so many fleeting interactions we have with others) went down in under 38 seconds, so maybe it was easy to make a mistake.  I had made one nonetheless.

I was in trouble, but I didn’t want to totally blow this moment.

And then I remembered my dad and “The Power of the Pen.”

As a little guy, my dad would sometimes surprise me and take me out of elementary school to go with him to see clients. These were fun trips where I learned many things about sales methods and techniques. I watched my dad in awe as he spoke with CEO’S and business leaders, helping them develop recognition solutions.

For a second, I flashed back to being on the old Delta plane with my dad on one of those trips. I recalled with fondness the stewardesses and pilots who ”back in the day” dressed up and looked so professional. I could see the stewardess smiling at me and handing me my own plastic captain’s wings lapel badge which I proudly pinned to my suit jacket.(Weren’t the 70s cool?)

I remembered my dad smiling back at her and thanking her for showing kindness to his son. Then my dad reached into his bag and pulled out a Parker Pen in a nice gift box, inscribed with the words, “Thanks for making a difference.”

He told the stewardess how much he appreciated her kindness to me and that this gift was for her, because she had made a difference to him. She beamed and took the pen to show all the other flight attendants. She even moved me and dad up to first class! Wow! I decided right then and there that I had to figure out what was behind Dad and the Power of the Pen.

Okay. The memory came and went in a split second, and there was this guy,with that smile slowly fading away after my goof with the five dollar bill.

I smiled back again at him and said, “Hey, wait a second.” And then  began hurriedly digging through my bag to see if I had any Green Bean pens left from my presentation. (Many of you know that I love green beans and give away pens shaped like that very vegetable at my sessions.)

There it was. One last green bean pen was left in the bottom of my bag. I handed it to the man and again thanked him for his kindness, seeing his smile brighten back up, and he even asked me what kind of work I do (so I explained that we are behavior change consultants). We parted as friends and I had a good feeling in my heart.

I called the Roadside Assistance guy to tell him there was no need to come.

As I drove down I-77 south of Charlotte I began to analyze what had just happened, and as near as I can figure it, here it is:

  • I asked the repair guy to help me, which he did.
  • I felt obligated from my heart to thank him and to accompany it with a gift of some sort
  • In the two seconds I took to choose a gift, I chose the only one I had at the time, which was money.
  • He rejected it and was a bit offended that I offered it.
  • He warmly accepted the small green bean pen, which was novel, different,and a souvenir of that moment.
  • When I presented both the cash award and the pen, I expressed heartfelt appreciation. But he didn’t want the cash, while he was cool with the pen.

Hmmm . . . what do we learn here? A lot, I think.

Here are a few takeaways.

1.  On the surface, it would appear that the man simply preferred a little plastic pen to $5. The easy conclusion would be that logo gifts are a better award than cash.

Many consultants, managers, and committee members make this mistake day-in and day-out. They purchase more and more logo stuff as handout items for employees: these may include caps, key chains, and mugs with a logo doled out to employees in honor of all sorts of achievements. Many companies have a whole warehouse full of these items.

While logo gifts can occasionally have real impact on our behavior (remember dad and the Power of the Pen?), research by the Incentive Federation shows that logo’d items are the LEAST EFFECTIVE reward/behavior change tool we know of (see my last blog “I’m Confused” for more on that).

The most effective reinforcers from our research and that of others are social reinforcers (my smile, handshake, and thanking the man) and according to the Federation study, AND giving a person a gift such as an Ipod or other type award that they truly want and need are also effective. Cash and gift cards are also judged more effective than logo gifts as reinforcers.

Several speakers at BSN passionately argue for the use of logo’d or symbolic gifts. One prominent behavioral consultant told me “If a person doesn’t want a baseball cap, it’s because he doesn’t want that logo. You need to put a different logo on it and he will want it.”


What if he already has 18 ball caps in his closet and just doesn’t need another one?

While logo gifts have their place, sadly, it is impossible to choose a logo gift that everyone will find reinforcing and/or useful.

2.  Why did the repair guy refuse my $5 but accept the pen?

Our behavior is continually being reinforced by consequences that are either external (extrinsic) and/or internal (intrinsic or self-reinforcing).

There is a lot of controversy in the world of psychology between the cognitive psychologists  and the behaviorists. Some have even tried to fuse the two schools of thought together which is a noble task, but for many people, this effort can make the water even muddier, as you try to mesh two very complex models. (See my blog “THE GREAT DEBATE” for more on this.)

In a nutshell, the cognitive guys believe intrinsic or “self-motivation” is the more powerful human motivator, while behaviorists focus on delivering extrinsic or external reinforcers (social and tangible) to increase behavior and drive performance.

Curiously enough, BF Skinner, the behaviorist legend, once said “Human thoughts are simply behaviors we haven’t learned to measure yet.” I kind of like that idea.

In my BSN keynote speech in Jacksonville, I offered the audience a challenge. Which type of reinforcer is most effective: internal or external?

And I believe that the answer is (drum roll please) . . .


I believe that the repair guy at the moment he helped me was being reinforced from his “heart” or self-reinforced for his good deed. He cared about my plight and was feeling the power of the statement, “It is better to give than to receive.” In this mode of behavior, we humans are at our best. We are the firefighter rushing into the Twin Towers on 9/11. Or the soldier who covers the grenade with his body to save his comrades. A wise man once said,, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

So when my repair guy was operating in this mode of high self-reinforcement, my giving him $5 made him feel cheap, as if he was a hired servant. Thus, it was a punisher, not a positive reinforcer. It offended him and reduced our relationship to a mere transaction, something external.

The pen however, was a gift, a symbol of our brief friendship. The pen was well accepted, and didn’t conflict with his own internal reinforcement, but likely will be used a long time and as a reminder of my appreciation for his help.

But the game changes somewhat when people come to work for us and we pay them a salary for what they do.

Had the roadside assistance guy showed up before my repair guy, if he had jumped-off my car, and I tipped him $5, he would have been cool with it. Why? Because it was a little extra compensation for services rendered. The pen might have offended him, but I doubt the cash would have. Had I given nothing to the roadside assistance guy (no pen, no money) he would have probably muttered “Cheap jerk” under his breath. Verbal praise here would have fallen on the roadside assistance man’s deaf ears, because it would have seemed insincere and cheap.

Social reinforcers work well if and only if they are sincere, specific, and not seen as manipulative. That’s why training in giving feedback and verbal reinforcement is very important.

But in the relationship between employer/employee, sadly, many companies are making the same $5 mistake that I made with my repair guy.

Busy managers don’t have time to find out what gift would be truly reinforcing for each one of their people. In the 80s, a supervisor had 10 people reporting to him; in today’s downsized world, he  might easily have to oversee 100.

How is that poor supervisor or steering committee going to know what reinforcers work for their people?

Answer: They don’t and they can’t. Even though that would be great, realistically there isn’t enough time to know.

So what do most companies do? They succumb to the power of the Dark Side, the easy way out. They give people money or cash substitutes like gift cards.

Granted, rewarding your people with gift cards and money has advantages:

-It’s easy.

-People can choose more things to get with their gift card/money.

-The CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people stop whining—sometimes.

But rewarding with gift cards and money has these important disadvantages:

-Sometimes, it conflicts with the internal motivation or self-reinforcement that we want people to develop (as it with did my repair guy).

-People become “entitled” to the cash; they expect it and their behavior is driven totally by the money and not self-reinforcement.

-You lose well over 50 percent of your cash/gift card budget to income taxes and other hidden costs of gift cards.

-Dozens of studies show that non-cash reinforcer gifts have 3 to 6 times the impact of cash on behavior.

I have seen many companies fall into the trap of confusing compensation with recognition. They ultimately fail to get people to a higher level of behavior since they rely solely on carrot-and-stick approaches.

So what is the right rock to use to hit the mark with employees and ensure that we’re delivering positive reinforcement?

1. Reinforcement and recognition must be linked to the behavior within seconds, not days or weeks.

2. Recognition should be specific and include both tangible and social reinforcement techniques. Don’t succumb to the Dark Side and reduce everything to a transaction due to lack of time or tools.

3. When it comes to the gift, make it a gift and make it fun, not an obligatory transaction. Make the act of giving the gift memorable. Provide each person a wide array of options to choose from so they can find something personally reinforcing to them. Use cash and cash substitutes as a last resort, or filter the choices so people won’t just pay off their bills or buy a tank of gas with their award.

4. Make the award unexpected and a surprise! Again, make it fun.

5. Track everything down to each behavior reinforced when, why, and by whom.

6. Analyze, analyze, analyze your data to move the process to the next level.

Our new Genesis platform has been developed with these fundamentals in mind, and it provides busy managers with comprehensive tools to pinpoint and reinforce critical behaviors and results that drive bottom-line business improvements.

The proof in the pudding is a recent report from Horizon, our newest client, who have reported injury reductions of over 60 percent in a few months of operation of using both Smartcard and Genesis.

Well, that about wraps up this blog.

Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about Bob my BFF with OSHA. Bob says that OSHA has an SEP (code name for Special Emphasis Program) which means they are looking hard at incentive systems that reward lagging indicators and which drive injury hiding.

So, if you are using a system that rewards people for working days, weeks, months without reporting injuries, now would be a good time to rethink your strategy.

One Response to “Battery Cables”

  1. December 22nd, 2015 at 6:31 am

    The right’s and wrong’s about ‘Thank You’s’ - Canadian Contractor magazine says:

    In fact, recognizing good work as soon as possible is actually better reinforcement than waiting days, weeks or months. You can even make it a surprise!

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