Battery Cables and Behavior Change

March 1, 2010
What do battery cables, behavior change and employee recognition have in common? More than you think.

I had just finished a speaking assignment for a lively group of safety professionals who asked me to speak about behavior change. After the meeting, I slid into the front seat of my car, put the key in the switch and turned it, convinced that I was about to hear that good old V8 rumble to life — a top-ten favorite PIC (positive, immediate and certain consequence) in my life.

However, this time the positive consequence didn't occur. “Dang!” I said. “Dead battery.”

Next, I did a hasty root-cause analysis in my brain to determine why and how this had happened. Oh yeah, I had plugged my laptop into the cigarette lighter to juice it up so I could finish a live, hour-long webinar with another company before my speaking engagement. Who'd have thought a laptop could suck that much juice out of a car battery that fast?

It can, and it did.

My first call was to roadside assistance. Then I remembered the battery cables in my trunk. I looked around and saw a guy pulling out of his parking space. By the looks of things, he was a repairman just finishing his lunch break. I walked over, told him of my predicament, and asked, “Would you mind giving me a boost?”

The look on his face went from apprehension to a smile. Then this nice guy pulled his truck up to my car and we connected the cables, using the appropriate safety technique I had learned at the ripe old age of 17 from Mr. Jones, a teacher who also had 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 as good as ever! I felt very grateful to the repair guy. I wanted 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 all the cash I had, and it was all I could think of at the time. I was grateful to him and 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 done the wrong thing. 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) happened in seconds, so 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.”

My dad sometimes surprised me and took 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 CEOs and business leaders, helping them develop recognition solutions.

For a second, I flashed back to being on the Delta plane with 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 remembered the stewardess smiling at me and handing me my own plastic captain's wings lapel badge.

My dad smiled back at her and thanked her. He 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 then 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 showed the pen to all the other flight attendants. She even moved Dad and me up to first class. Wow!

The memory flashed by in a split second, and here was this guy, with that smile slowly fading away after my goof with the $5 bill.

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

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. He even asked me what kind of work I do. I explained that I am a behavior change consultant. We parted as friends and I had a good feeling in my heart.


I called and canceled the roadside assistance guy, and as I drove down the road, I began to analyze what had just happened. As near as I can figure it, here it is:

The repair guy helped me, and I felt obligated to thank him and to accompany that with a gift of some sort. In the 2 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 the moment. When I presented both the cash award and the pen, I expressed heartfelt appreciation. While he didn't want the cash, he was cool with the pen.

This event inspired a couple of questions that I briefly will answer:

  • On the surface, it appears that the man simply preferred a little plastic pen to $5. So, are logo gifts a better award than cash?

    Many consultants, managers and committee members make this mistake. They purchase more and more logo stuff (caps, key chains, mugs) and hand these items to employees in honor of all sorts of achievements.

    While logo gifts occasionally can have real impact on our behavior (remember Dad and the Power of the Pen?), research by the Incentive Federation shows that items with logos are the least effective reward/behavior change tool.

    Research shows that the most effective reinforcers are social reinforcers (in this case, my smile, handshake and thanking the man). Also, according to the Federation study, giving a person a gift or award that they truly want and need also is effective. While logo gifts occasionally have their place, it is highly improbable that everyone receiving one will find it reinforcing or useful.

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

Our behavior continually is reinforced by consequences that either are external (extrinsic) 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 even have tried to fuse the two schools of thought together, but for many people, this effort can make the water even muddier. 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. During keynote speeches, I often ask the audience, “Which type of reinforcer is most effective: internal or external?”

I believe that the answer is both.


The repair guy, at the moment he helped me, was being 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.”

When the repair guy was operating in this mode of high self-reinforcement, my giving him $5 made him feel cheap, like 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, didn't conflict with his internal reinforcement and likely will serve as a reminder of my appreciation for his help.

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

If the roadside assistance guy had jumped my car, and I had 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 only if they are sincere, specific and not seen as manipulative. That's why training in properly giving feedback and verbal reinforcement is very important. But in the relationship between employer/employee, many companies sadly are making the same $5 mistake that I made with my repair guy.


Busy managers don't have time to find out what gift is reinforcing for each employee. In the 1980s, a supervisor had 10 people reporting to him; in today's downsized-middle-management world, he might easily have to oversee 100. How is that supervisor or steering committee member going to know what reinforcers work for their people? 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 easy way out. They give people money, a hat with a logo or a gift card.

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

  • It's easy.

  • People can choose 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 by the money and not self-reinforcement.

  • Dozens of studies show that non-cash reinforcer gifts have three to six times the impact of cash on behavior.

I have seen many companies fall into the trap of confusing compensation with recognition. These companies 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 approach to ensure we're delivering real positive reinforcement to our employees?

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

  2. Recognition should be specific and can include both tangible and social reinforcement. Train managers to deliver both effectively.

  3. Make the act of giving an award fun and memorable. Provide each person an array of options to choose from so they can find something personally reinforcing to them. Use cash card 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. Track everything down to each behavior reinforced when, why and by whom.

  5. Analyze your data to move the process to the next level.

Granted, reinforcing the right behaviors at the right time in the correct way can be a difficult science, but it's well worth the effort. Soon your employees may be walking out the door at the end of the day, just like the repair guy, with a smile on their faces and a story to tell.

Bill Sims Jr. is the president of the Bill Sims Co., which has created behavior-based recognition programs for more than 40 years. Contact Bill Sims at 803-600-8325 or visit

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