3 Steps Business Leaders & HR Professionals Can Take To Avoid The Cobra Effect

IndiancobraAccording to a popular anecdote, the British government during its rule of colonial India was deeply concerned about the number of deadly poisonous cobras in Delhi. In an effort to solve the problem, they offered a reward for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government discovered what was going on, the reward program was scrapped. Having no further need for the extra cobras, breeders now set the snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population actually increased. So, the cobra effect is said to occur when an apparent solution for a problem actually makes the problem worse.

The cobra effect can wreak havoc in organizations, as well. Whether it is attempts to increase worker productivity or improve employee health, both rewards and punishments have become the major modus operandi for “getting” employees to change behavior. This trend continues unabated in spite of the complete lack of evidence of efficacy of such approaches to produce sustained change for all but the simplest of behaviors.

Unintended Consequences

In the health arena, the cobra effect is often referred to as iatrogenesis, defined as “preventable harm resulting from medical treatment or advice to patients.” It, and the cobra effect, both result from what behavioral economists refer to as the law of unintended consequences which states that interventions, particularly those in complex systems, always have outcomes that are unforeseen and unintended (cannot be predicted and controlled). While some of these can be beneficial, often, as was clearly the case with the cobras, they can make the problem worse.

In fact the literature over the past 30 years is clear that rewards and punishments (extrinsic motivation), whether designed to increase worker performance and productivity or improve health (what we refer to as “wellness or else” ), almost always invoke the dreaded cobra effect.

Clearly and consistently, these approaches move people towards lying, cheating, and taking shortcuts. Even more damningly, the use of extrinsic motivation to drive behavior blunts creativity and diminishes intrinsic motivation; exactly the opposite of the qualities organizations are looking for in their employees.

In spite of the best intentions of practitioners and researchers alike, and lots of lip service to the contrary, no one to this point has been able to figure out how to manipulate extrinsic motivators to either support sustained change or significantly minimize the cobra effect. The resulting reality is that relying on extrinsic motivation to promote change amongst your employees will more than likely:

  • Diminish their performance and creativity.
  • Promote short-term thinking and behavior.
  • Encourage cheating and lying.
  • Decrease their intrinsic motivation.

What Can You Do to Avoid the Cobra Effect and Promote a Truly Thriving Workplace Culture?

Here are 3 important steps you can take to begin the process:

1. Move away from programs that reward people for participating or punish them if they don’t. These types of programs have not been shown to be effective in improving health or reducing costs and frequently have a cobra effect of eroding employee morale and engagement. If you already have these programs in place, it’s important not to abandon them too quickly, as that can be problematic, with employees feeling more is being taken away from them. However, there are steps you can take to safely and effectively transition away from rewards and punishments to foster autonomy and provide resources that are relevant to them without needing to be coerced to do so.

2.Make sure your programs are so relevant and appealing that people will not need to be coerced to participate. If you are lucky enough not to have gone down this path before, rest assured that companies with thriving workplace cultures have had lots of success without coercing employees to participate or punishing them if they don’t.

A great example of this is Google. They use their people programs to achieve three goals: efficiency, community, and innovation. Every program they have exists to further one of these goals – often more than one. Many of the benefits provided are designed to make employees’ lives easier. Googlers (what they call their employees) organize and maintain the perks (i.e., having a local nail salon owner come onsite for “mani-pedis” at the office, organic produce delivery, holiday fairs with local merchants onsite selling their products, etc.)… and the perks are paid for by employees who participate, not Google.

They also have all kinds of groups and clubs, including book clubs and financial planning groups, and groups ranging from Women@Google to The Special Needs Network (e.g., autism, ADHD or blindness), and the Asian Googler Network. The over-arching principle for all of the programs, clubs and resources Google provides its employees is that “there’s no expectation or requirement that people need to do any of this stuff.” 1

Talks at Google is a speaker series where thought-provoking people are invited to campus to share their thoughts. Of course they attract some pretty impressive people (past speakers have included Presidents Obama and Clinton, Lady Gaga, David Beckham, Tina Fey and more); they record and post them on their YouTube channel. But what’s more impressive is that it’s entirely supported by volunteers. Not everyone uses every service the company provides, but there’s something for everyone. And almost everything Google does is free or low cost, and is provided because they work to create efficiency, community or innovation. They don’t care about trying to collect a ROI on every resource.

The bottom line is: employees are organizing and bringing in speakers on topics that interest them; it’s not the company trying to shove a specific message down employees’ throats, and no incentives are used to entice participation. Employees are included in the process and are self-organizing – via the speaker program as well as all of the other clubs and perks – because they are given autonomy and included in creating the conditions in which they can thrive.

Another example is Zappos Insights. Along the lines of what we’ve learned from Deliberately Developmental Organizations about the value of using work as a context for profound personal growth to work through adaptive challenges, Zappos Insights launched its Goals program in 2010 as a way to systematically provide life coaching to employees so people could work through whatever issues mattered to them at home or at work.2 They rolled it out in phases, creating buzz and demand without any incentive.

3. Stop trying to motivate your employees. Our behavioral nuances communicate our thoughts; therefore, change initiatives only work when we change the way we think. In other words, lasting change needs to come from within and be inside out. People first must be clear about what matters to them, considering their WHOLE LIFE, and be able to tap into better thinking. So, we need to think less about motivation and more about creating the conditions to support better thinking; only then can we effectively support individual change. At the end of the day, “successful organizations don’t motivate employees; they engage them.” Motivating employees and engaging them are very distinct concepts. Instead, focus on creating the conditions in which employees will motivate themselves. Creating a thriving workplace culture is a great start; this will provide a solid foundation that will allow for promoting better thinking by supporting autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Invite Employee Input

Perhaps the most impactful way to ensure you don’t need to coerce employees is to involve them in the process of how the organization lives its core values and desired culture. People are much more likely to support what they have helped to create. Begin by asking employees questions that allow them to initiate their own thoughts. This is a critical component to autonomy, employee engagement, and lasting organizational change. Take care to be authentic when you are asking questions, as the brain has a keen ability to detect the difference between authentic inquiry (i.e., I’m asking you a question for no other reason than I’m genuinely interested in you) and persuasion (i.e., I’m asking you a question to try to “get” you to somewhere I think you should be). Our Thriving Workplace Culture Survey is a great tool to help you understand your employees’ attitudes toward your organization.

Organizations can best avoid the potentially devastating consequences of the cobra effect by bringing their understanding of the science of motivation and human behavior into the 21st century. In an engaging, animated version of a recent TED talk, Daniel Pink, (author of the groundbreaking book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us”) summarized the problem:

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does… Too many organizations are making their decisions, their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.”

For a more detailed exploration of how to update your understanding and practice of motivation and behavior change, download this FREE eBook — Ushering Motivation and Behavior Change into the 21st Century.


1 Bock, L. (2015). Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google that Will Transform How You Live and Lead. New York: Twelve.

2 Richman, R. (2015). The Culture Blueprint. Culture Hackers.

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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