Are you treat-training your employees?

by May 8, 2019

Dogs are great trainers.  They train us to provide affection at just the right time.  They train us to scratch their tummies in just the right place.  They train us to ignore obnoxious behaviors that we can’t get them to stop doing.  They pretty much pick and choose the commands they want to follow.  Do you ask your dog five times to sit?  You DO know he heard you the first time, right? Let’s look at Trainer Trevor, who just taught Fido to dance in a circle on his hind legs.  “Look what I taught Fido to do!” he says excitedly as he solicits an audience gathering near him and the dog.  He motions with an upward sweep of his left hand for the dog to stand and twirl, and in his right hand he’s holding – you know he is – a treat.  He dangles the treat while cajoling Fido in an uncharacteristically high-pitched baby voice, “Dance, Fido, dance!”  And most of the time Fido will dance and twirl – but will he do it without the dangling treat?  My money’s on “nope.”

So what does treat training have to do with wellness?

Basically, employers are dangling treats in front of their employees, who then comply by doing dumb, meaningless tricks – or at least they say they do, since most programs are check-the-box-to-get-your-goodies programs based on self-reported activities.  But will they do the “tricks” on their own?  Do those tricks or does this type of “treat training” drive long-term, sustainable behavior improvement?  Well you tell me.  Fido knows there’s a treat if he does a trick.  If you’ve treat-trained your employees, they too are simply doing tricks for treats. There are things a dog will do without a treat.  Let’s say, for example, that he loves to play fetch (and will actually bring the ball back).  While “playing dead” may require a treat to entice a performance, playing fetch may not because he enjoys it – he’s intrinsically motivated.   You see where I’m going here, right?

Employers need to “find the fetch.”

Ask yourself what your goals are.  Why are you doing a wellness program in the first place?  Is it to get employees to do one-time activities?  Is it to encourage them to check some boxes to collect a reward?  Or are you really trying to drive long-term, measurable behavior improvement?  If it’s the latter, you may want to re-think treat training, and replace it with programs that people enjoy and want to take part in.  Find the “fetch.” Promote programs that encourage participation in meaningful, validated activities rather than check-the-box self-reported ones.  I’m not suggesting you do away with rewards altogether – instead, use them as actual “rewards” for doing meaningful activities rather than a treat being dangled to cajole a robotic response.  By shifting your focus away from incentives being used to elicit a response, you’re encouraging employees to develop and enhance intrinsic motivation and to motivate and hold one another accountable through social connectivity, all of which fosters a culture of wellness that’s done for all the right reasons.