Reward Systems and Employee Motivation: How Recognition Fuels Safe Practices

This blog post explores the power of recognition in motivating safety behaviour, discusses the psychological aspects of esteem needs, and discusses the value of pairing recognition with rewards, featuring Scratchie as a tool to enhance safety culture.
June 28, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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Consider the last time someone offered you an unexpected gesture of appreciation, kindness, or thanks. Perhaps a colleague gave you a compliment out of the blue, or maybe a partner or family member surprised you with a thoughtful gift.

Do you remember how this gesture made you feel? Chances are, you felt your chest fill up with warmth or pride, or like that moment cast a positive glow over the rest of your day. These kinds of emotional responses speak to the powerful psychology that underlies such moments of positive recognition.

Each of us carries this psychological architecture within us, making it susceptible to activation during our experiences at work. This means that organisational leaders who understand this psychology can leverage it for the betterment of the workplace in ways that support desirable outcomes, such as proactive safety behaviours and a safety-conscious culture.

Recognition and Reward as Keys for Motivating Safety Behavior

When we’re busy with other things, it’s easy to dismiss the impact of a kind word for a job well done—but do so at your peril! Rewards for exemplary performance are an innate human need, and the impact of reward and recognition is rooted in our fundamental psychology.

So when it comes to safety performance, failure to provide positive recognition for desirable safety behaviours can do more than just miss out on opportunities to create a superior safety culture. It can inadvertently communicate that such behaviours are taken for granted and perhaps unimportant.

For safety-critical organisations, this means that making the markers of safety success visible and providing recognition for these is key to creating safer workplaces. In this post, we’ll explore the science of why positive recognition is so powerful when it comes to creating a safety-conscious culture and explore the arguments for pairing this style of recognition with practical rewards.

The Fundamental Psychology of Recognition: Understanding Esteem

When you lean into positive recognition as an approach to promoting safety on your worksite, you can feel confident knowing you’re invoking one of the most famous motivational principles in psychology.

In 1954, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced a groundbreaking theory known as the Hierarchy of Needs. This theory presented a hierarchically ordered list of five human needs that all of us are motivated to fulfil in pursuit of a content and meaningful life.

Among these essential needs is the concept of esteem needs. Esteem needs encompass the fundamental psychological desires for recognition, respect, and a sense of accomplishment. These needs are essential for individuals to feel valued and develop a positive self-perception within their work environment.

When talking about esteem needs, Maslow argued there were two types: the need for self-esteem and the need for esteem from others. Both are critically important to understand if you’re looking to take a psychological approach to motivating safe behaviour on your worksite.

Self-Esteem Needs

The need for self-esteem refers to an individual's intrinsic desire to feel a sense of self-worth and competence. You can think of a drive for self-esteem as being a source of motivation that arises from a person’s internal standards.

In the construction field, this can be seen when workers take pride in their craftsmanship, striving to complete projects to the best of their abilities.

For example, a construction worker who meticulously ensures that every component is installed correctly and adheres to safety standards is driven by a need for self-esteem. By demonstrating their competence and expertise, they derive a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction from their work.

Esteem from Others

On the other hand, the need for esteem from others revolves around the desire for recognition, respect, and admiration from others. This type of esteem motivates action through a drive to meet the external standards of others.

In the construction industry, workers seek validation for their contributions to safety from colleagues, supervisors, and peers.

For instance, when a construction supervisor acknowledges and praises a worker for consistently following safety protocols and proactively identifying potential hazards, it fulfils the worker's need for esteem from others. This recognition not only boosts their confidence but also reinforces their commitment to maintaining a safe working environment.

Why You Should Boost Esteem with Recognition for Safe Behaviours

It may be tempting to believe that a sense of self-esteem for performing work safely should be sufficient to yield the kind of safe work environment you desire. But this view neglects the deeply hardwired nature of our need for social recognition.

As social creatures, humans have an innate drive to belong and be accepted within their groups. This stems from our evolutionary history, where being part of a cohesive community increased our chances of survival, protection, and access to resources. In this context, receiving esteem from others becomes significant as it validates our membership within the group and reinforces our social bonds.

When individuals receive recognition, appreciation, and respect from their peers, supervisors, or colleagues on a worksite, it satisfies their need for esteem from others. This external validation confirms their value, skills, and contributions, bolstering their sense of belonging and acceptance within the group.

This is why discounting the value of external recognition as a tool for encouraging safe workplace behaviour is a mistake—it’s simply too crucial to our psychological wellbeing and overall satisfaction in life. Recognition, therefore, is a powerful lever worth pulling using a structured system like Scratchie to help motivate safety behaviour.

Pairing Recognition with Rewards for Greater Safety

So we can agree that recognition for safe behaviours is essential. But what happens when you pair this recognition with tangible reward?

Recognition, most often, is a symbolic way to show appreciation for an accomplishment, typically taking the form of praise and thanks, but also potentially plaques, trophies, or other symbolic accolades. Rewards, on the other hand, are any type of tangible incentive, often in the form of money or gift vouchers, that is designed to shape and influence worker behaviour.

There are differing viewpoints regarding the use of rewards as a means to encourage desirable behaviour. Some argue that providing rewards for performing expected actions can be seen as contradictory to the principles of good practice.

They contend that people should inherently strive to do what is expected of them without the need for external incentives or rewards. In other words, a person’s sense of self-esteem—a sense of pride in doing the right thing—should be sufficient to drive safe behaviour.

In contrast, proponents of using rewards as motivational tools argue that acknowledging and incentivizing desired behaviours can yield significant benefits. Rewards can help establish positive habits, reinforce desired behaviours, and create a culture that actively promotes safety.

Over time, this positive reinforcement can shape attitudes and create a self-sustaining cycle where individuals are internally motivated to prioritise safety and go above and beyond what is merely expected.

Consider also that different workers respond differently to various forms of reinforcement. While some individuals may be highly responsive to verbal recognition and feel over the moon about receiving praise, others may not be as receptive to verbal acknowledgments for a variety of reasons.

To illustrate, consider two construction site workers, John and Sarah.

John thrives on verbal recognition and praise. When his supervisor commends him for consistently following safety protocols and highlights his attention to detail, John feels a sense of pride and fulfilment. This verbal recognition motivates him to continue his safe practices and reinforces his commitment to maintaining a safe working environment.

On the other hand, Sarah may not be as responsive to verbal recognition. It could be due to her personality traits, past experiences, or a preference for more tangible forms of reinforcement. It’s simply that, for some people, verbal praise alone does not have the same impact on motivation or one’s sense of accomplishment.

This is where monetary rewards, such as those offered by Scratchie, can play a crucial role. When Sarah receives a monetary reward for her exemplary safety performance, it adds motivational weight to that moment of recognition. The tangible reward serves as a concrete demonstration of her achievements, making her efforts feel valued and appreciated.

3 Reasons to Combine Rewards and Recognition for Greater Safety Impact

Overall, it seems that using rewards in combination with recognition can offer several advantages in the construction context. Firstly, they provide a more tangible and concrete form of reinforcement compared to verbal recognition alone.

Secondly, they can be easily quantifiable and directly linked to specific safety behaviours or accomplishments. This transparency helps individuals understand the correlation between their efforts and the rewards received, better reinforcing the desired behaviours.

Lastly, monetary rewards have a lasting impact beyond the moment of recognition. They can be saved, used for personal goals, or provide a sense of financial security. This extended benefit further enhances the motivational impact of the reward, making individuals more likely to consistently engage in safe practices to earn further rewards.

Recognise and Reward Better with Scratchie

Ultimately, while it is ideal for individuals to intrinsically strive to meet expectations, rewards can serve as valuable tools to reinforce positive behaviours, drive continuous improvement, and create a safety culture that goes beyond the bare minimum.

Scratchie, with its focus on monetary rewards, goes beyond simply providing financial incentives. It creates a unique context for recognition by initiating a conversation between a worker and a worksite supervisor, serving as a powerful catalyst for acknowledging and reinforcing safe behaviours within the workplace.

When a construction supervisor observes a worker demonstrating exemplary safety practices, the Scratchie app offers a structured platform for recognition. This initiates a dialogue between the supervisor and the worker, where the recognition becomes a tangible and shared experience.

Moreover, the conversation initiated through the app opens up an opportunity for the worker and supervisor to discuss the significance of a safe behaviour. This dialogue reinforces the importance of the behaviour, deepens the worker's understanding of safety protocols, and strengthens the overall safety culture within the organisation.

In this way, the app serves as a facilitator for meaningful interactions centred around safety, promoting a continuous feedback loop between supervisors and workers. This ongoing conversation not only recognizes individual contributions but also provides a platform for knowledge sharing, collaborative problem-solving, and the exchange of best practices.

Curious how Scratchie can help reinforce safety behaviours on your worksite? Join us for our live Procore webinar in early August, and discover the rewarding safety solution making waves in Australia’s construction industry.


What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement refers to the practice of providing rewards or incentives to encourage and reinforce desired behaviours.

In the context of safety behaviour, positive reinforcement involves acknowledging and rewarding individuals for their adherence to safety protocols, proactive hazard identification, or other safety-related actions. By associating positive outcomes with safe behaviours, positive reinforcement helps to motivate and encourage individuals to continue prioritising safety in the workplace.

Why are some people not as responsive to verbal recognition for safety behaviour in the absence of tangible reward?

Several factors related to personality and past experiences can contribute to why verbal recognition alone might not have the same impact on all workers’ esteem  or sense of accomplishment compared to recognition paired with reward.

For example, some workers may differ in their trait-level humility. Those high in humility are more modest, sometimes making them less responsive to verbal recognition. Similarly, if a worker has had a negative experience in the past where verbal recognition was insincere or not followed by meaningful action, they might perceive that verbal recognition alone lacks substance or isn’t truly reflective of their contributions.

How can Scratchie help increase recognition of workers’ safe behaviours?

Scratchie creates a rich context for recognition by leveraging the power of technology to initiate conversations and foster a culture of safety. By incorporating monetary rewards within this framework, the app not only motivates individuals but also establishes a robust foundation for ongoing communication and engagement in promoting safety within the workplace.

When implemented thoughtfully and in conjunction with other elements of a comprehensive safety program, rewards can contribute to the overall success of promoting safety and enhancing individual engagement and motivation.

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