Grow Your Business by Being Pro-Social

By Holly Parsons
The Wilson Agency, A UBA Partner FirmPay it Forward Image

My all-time favorite movie is Pay It Forward. It has a stellar cast that delivers a story about a young boy who is given the opportunity to make the world a better place and far exceeds anyone’s expectations. It’s a testament to what the human spirit can do when thinking about other people and putting those thoughts into action.

I was reminded of the movie when I came across an article on the best way to compensate employees.  It described a study that concluded that offering people bigger bonuses actually makes them perform worse. Furthermore, it determined that bonuses or incentives don’t really produce positive results until we are required to spend it on someone else. I found this to be counter-intuitive given the scarcity dilemma most of us are trying to avoid; and yet, after some consideration, I found it completely logical. 

As social beings we are unequivocally tied to one another. Think about America’s Funniest Home Videos and how we cringe every time we see someone getting hit in the head, or worse yet, the groin. It’s a biological response we can’t control. Now, transfer that to helping someone, and the same thing happens: we feel good. In fact, helping is a well-known treatment for depression.

Knowing this little tidbit of human biology can help businesses that are trying to engage their employees and become a better company. For example, we see companies that offer incentives to people to encourage them to complete a health risk assessment, biometrics or healthier behaviors that result in fewer insurance claims. Usually, the employee receives these incentives directly, solely based on their own behavior with no connection to what others do. But, what if those incentives were flipped around and provided to staff so they could spend it on their coworkers? Or, if you could demonstrate that their healthy choices benefit someone else? Would it be a bigger motivator to participate? Would it change your culture to one of service? What values does this inspire in your workforce and would it show up in other areas?

The study admits that, “The effect probably has limits.” Given that only small amounts were used, it might be different if larger amounts were at stake. And, I suppose that tipping point will be different for each person. I know some people who are infinitely more selfless than others. But, it does offer a new way to engage your staff and flip our traditional incentive programs on their heads. If you want people to be engaged with what you’re doing, leverage our natural and counter-intuitive desire to pay it forward. You just might be surprised what comes back.