Graduation day is always a memorable moment – weather it’s from middle school, high school or university. One gets to wear a robe, get a diploma while being applauded, take pictures with the extended family, receive presents and usually there is cake as well. It’s always a celebration of achievement that makes all the time spent studying, all the quizzes and tests and all the big projects worthwhile.

It can be argued that studying should not be done in order to get to throw a hat in the air and have a party but to better oneself and ensure a well-provided future. That’s the rational way to see it. Yet decision making is not rational and human motivation is a wondrous thing. Getting a person to study, whether it’s a child, a teenager or an adult requires a lot more that the logical explanation of why they should do it. It takes a lot of skillfully designed incentives.

Behavioral economics and employee engagement

Behavioral economics is a recent branch of neuroscience that sets out to explore the biological underpinning of decision making. Technological advances are nowadays allowing researchers to probe the brain in unprecedented detail in order to get spectacular intel. For instance, brain-imaging technologies now allow scientists to see which brain areas are active while making an economic decision and which are not.


Read: Why you should consider neuroscience when creating e-learning courses.


The most outstanding finding so far is that all forms of reward – monetary or otherwise – are processed in the brain’s master reward center, the striatum, and are experienced as rewarding feelings. For example, when research subjects are offered various forms of reward – whether it is their favorite dish, a compliment or a monetary gift – neurons in this structure fire.

This means rewarding employees intrinsically by treating them better or rewarding them extrinsically with money are treated equally in the brain, with both causing rewarding feelings emanating from the striatum and the dopamine reward system.

Freedom – one of the best feelings in the world

In most organizations, learning is not optional. Employees are required to enroll in certain courses and even though these may be very interesting and well-designed, as long as they are a must people don’t feel that great about them. This does not translate very well into information retention or employee engagement.

It’s true that people generally want to better themselves but for the most part they would like to do so on their own terms. This is why one of the best incentives for corporate learning is granting the learner as much autonomy as possible.

Allowing people to choose what they learn and when they do it is a way of showing trust and a genuine concern for their wellbeing. When they don’t feel pushed in a certain direction, employees are more likely to get involved with learning programs, enjoy them and most importantly – develop their skills and competencies.

Guidance should not be completely off the table and L&D specialists should still keep track of every person’s path and come up with recommendations but for the most part, employees should be trusted to choose what’s most suitable for them.


Read: Why each employee needs a learning path.


Accomplishment should be celebrated

While I was working as a trainer within a telecommunications company, I had to conduct a very short session on how a new customer relationship management tool worked. All employees working in customer services had to participate and since it was all fairly simple and straightforward it didn’t occur to me to print and give-out participation diplomas.

To my surprise, attendees asked about them. Even though it was an in-house affair and that piece of paper was as useful outside the company as a “best third floor neighbor” award, people still expected one.

In the light of the recent behavioral economics research mentioned above it makes sense. Celebration of achievement is processed by the brain just as monetary reward is and that’s why it should never be overlooked. Since e-learning is ultimately tree-friendly, a celebratory e-mail at the end of a module works just as well.

Game mechanics work miracles

One of the reasons so many people play online games is that they get instant gratification once a certain quest or task is accomplished. And if they fail, there is the immediate possibility to try again. Implementing a game-like system of points and badges in e-learning can make the whole experience more engaging and fun.


Read: Video games in business training? Don’t reject the idea just yet.


Employees can be rewarded for stacking up on their digital learning. Points and badges can then be traded in for flexible benefits such as shorter hours, days off or tickets to movies, theater or the spa. There are lots of possible prizes that can act as great incentives.


Read: Top 3 gamification techniques for your business training
5 Gamification mistakes to avoid.


Receiving something is always a pleasant experience and earning something even more so. As long as the brain reacts in a positive way people will keep making the decisions that resulted in those feelings.


FREE Resource: How to make learning engaging with gamification


Improving employee engagement with e-learning through incentives

It’s always been a challenge for instructional designers to answer the “what’s in it for me” question that every learner asks themselves at the start of a course. Developing a coherent incentive system to go with corporate e-learning helps a lot with this issue as well as with increasing employee engagement and retention.

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