May 142012

My first business writing job was with an incentive motivation company. It was a fairly new concept back then—the idea of a tangible reward for performance over a specified period of time.  Studies were just beginning to show that cash bonuses backfired, because people started thinking of them as a standard part of their compensation, so they weren’t motivated to go above and beyond to earn them, but resented not getting them.

The most important thing I learned during my short stint at that company is that salespeople tend to be those who are strongly motivated by hearing people say “yes,” but who put themselves in roles that, more than any other, involved hearing people say “no.”

I still remember the definition of incentive motivation provided by one of the company’s vice-presidents: “Do more than you possibly can, and we’ll give you a toaster.”

It didn’t take long for incentive motivation to be a standard element in our business repertoire. There are many variations—gift catalogs, luxury trips, reserved parking spaces, and the concept has spread far beyond the sales force.

That’s all fine and dandy. What’s unfortunate is the range of mangled terminology that’s emerged: “Incentivize,” “incentify,” and, the one that’s most horrible and therefore, predictably, the one that seems to be taking over, “incent.”
Here’s the deal: The purpose of incentive motivation is to motivate. That’s a perfectly legitimate, acceptable verb form, ready and willing to be used. As the preceding paragraphs show, there is no occasion when the various mangled verbs derived from “incentive” mean anything more or other than “motivate.”

All we need is the motivation to use the right word.

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