How Employees are Rewarded for Low Value Work

Several years ago, a marketing group we were working with was complaining about all the busywork that was keeping them from doing the difficult, more important work of growing the business. An assessment of where they were spending their time confirmed their assertions. So, one action we took was to automate the administrative task of getting various approvals since the practice of “walking” documents around to get signatures seemed to waste a lot of time. Wrong. Brand mangers hated it.

Bosses and key leaders had busy schedules or were traveling making them unavailable much of the time. So walking documents around or waiting for senior manager availability did waste a lot of time and delayed execution. But it turns out the time-wasting practice was highly valued by brand managers because they got to spend one-on-one time with senior leaders, however briefly, which they perceived was valuable to their projects and their careers.

Performing low value work had its rewards! The time-wasting behavior of the brand managers was being positively encouraged. In fact, the intermittency of the reward –catching a senior manager in the office and available only part of the time– probably maximized the effect.

Consequences either reward or discourage behavior. Had we known how to map consequences back then, we would have discovered the reinforcement and set up our automation project to discourage the old behavior and reward the new. And that’s the key: Understanding the ABCs of behavior and making sure the right things, the new behaviors, are being positively encouraged more than the old low-value work of the past.