Misunderstanding rewards hampers motivation

'Compensation is a right, recognition is a gift'

Motivation is one of those words that is commonly used to describe the fuzzy notion of “why we do what we do.” There are numerous misconceptions about motivation that make the topic all the more difficult to understand, but examining them helps avoid their pitfalls. Here are rules to apply to employee recognition.

Most managers think money is the top motivator — it’s not

What employees really want is to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem. Sure compensation is important, but most employees consider it a right — an exchange for the work one does. As management consultant Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it, “Compensation is a right; recognition is a gift.”

Study after study has shown that what tends to motivate employees to put forth their best efforts and to perform at higher levels are praise and recognition. People want to feel they are making a contribution at work, and for most individuals this is a function of having the respect of peers and colleagues, and having managers who tell them when they do a good job.

There are countless little things that show appreciation and add meaning to employees’ jobs. When paychecks go out, write a note on the envelope recognizing an employee’s accomplishment. Feature the employee in the company newsletter. Have the company president call an employee to thank him for a job well done. Create a pass around award. Distribute a positive email. Read positive letters from customers or clients in meetings. The list is almost endless; the principle is clear.

What motivates others is often different from what motivates oneself

Classic studies about what workers want from their jobs were conducted by Lawrence Lindahl in the late 1940s and repeated with similar results in the early 1980s and 1990s. When workers and supervisors were asked to rank a list of motivators from 1 to 10 in order of their importance to workers, workers rated “appreciation for a job well done” as their top motivator; supervisors ranked it eighth. Employees ranked “feeling in on things” as being second in importance; their mangers ranked it last at number 10. Managers rank good wages and job security as top motivators.

This perception gap between managers and employees must close. Managers must be sure to reward the behaviour they desire with recognition that is valued and meaningful to their employees — not just themselves. To do this, managers must ask employees what they want.

This can be done in one-on-one discussions or by conducting a survey. It can be as simple as informally surveying people in a staff meeting. Involving those one hopes to motivate makes it more likely recognition is on the mark.

The greatest impact of formal awards is the symbolic value

The intangible, symbolic and emotional value of any award is by far the most motivating aspect for employees. Formal awards are useful for acknowledging significant accomplishments, especially as they span a long period. They can also lend credibility to more spontaneous, informal rewards used regularly by management.

Still, recognizing employees with money, merchandise or plaques can have negative effects. When emphasis is placed on the award, rather than the performance, employees are often given the wrong signal.

Cecil Hill, corporate manager of improvement programs at Hughes Aircraft Company, claims, “I have found that certain aspects of the cash awards approach would be counterproductive at Hughes Aircraft. For example, cash awards would reduce teamwork as employees concentrated primarily on individual cash gains. We have also found instances where ‘pay’ for certain types of intellectual performance tends to denigrate the performance.”

To get the most out of formal awards, and to make sure that the focus remains on the performance and achievement — not the award itself — managers must be skilled in how they present awards.

Present awards in a public forum. Awards are not meant to be presented in the privacy of an employee’s office. Tag onto or schedule a special meeting for the occasion to place an employee “in the limelight.” Besides honouring the individual who performed well, recognition is also a message to other employees about the type of performance that gets noticed.

Managers must provide a context for the achievement and explain how it ties into the larger objectives of the organization. Will this achievement translate into a new product line, more appreciative clients, ongoing cost savings or other significant goals? How will the achievement potentially impact the overall success of the organization and each person in it? Providing a broader context adds significance to the achievement and to the person being honored.

When presenting an award, managers should emphasize personal feelings about the achievement or the individual. Comments such as “I was excited by your success” or “I’m proud that you are part of my team” give energy to the presentation.

When performance is recognized, more of that behaviour ensues

When someone an employee holds in high esteem at work notices superior performance and does something to acknowledge efforts and results, that’s when it means the most. In addition, employees are motivated by activities that directly affect the company’s bottom line.

Robert Hauptfuhrer, CEO of Oryx Energy says: “Give people a chance not just to do a job but to have some impact, and they’ll really respond, get on their roller skates and race around to make sure it happens.”

Other examples abound. The president of the Pizza Hut fast-food chain asked employees how to eliminate needless paperwork and tasks, and improve working conditions. The result was a company with fewer layers of management, less corporate paperwork and a 40-per-cent growth in sales.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, headquartered in St. Louis, posts the financial results of every branch office and region in plain view of all employees. A friendly rivalry between branch offices ensues, which translates into motivated employees who want to perform at their best.

It takes less effort to sustain desired behaviour than to create it

Once desired behaviour is achieved, recognition need not be as immediate or as frequent, but it must occur. Reinforcement theory shows that after new behaviour has been established, it can best be perpetuated through intermittent reinforcement. Don’t forget the desired behaviour just because a program to promote it has ended. Selective ongoing emphasis on the behaviour can perpetuate results — and at a fraction of the original time and cost.

Keep communicating about performance and achievement. Put examples of successes in employee newsletters or call them out publicly in meetings. Employee suggestions can continue to be highlighted by noting company savings from each suggestion or by interviewing top suggesters to encourage role modelling. And have management individually thank employees who have continued to perform as desired. In the hallway, in a voice mail, on a post-it note — keep saying, “thanks” and “good job.” You don’t have to do it as often, but you do have to continue doing it.

Ideally, make changes to systems to help perpetuate desired behaviours, such as hiring, orientation training, evaluation and promotion guidelines. At Disney a high value is placed on service and ensuring this value is integrated into the culture, by how the firm hires, orients, trains and promotes people, all based in part on one’s service attitude.

Managers don’t focus on employee motivation until it’s lost

Often, managers are too busy focusing on what’s urgent, such as dealing with daily crises in their jobs, and forget about regularly motivating and recognizing employees. That is, they forget about it until motivation is lost. Morale sinks, employees quit — and then management scrambles to figure out ways to energize and motivate employees. At this point, regenerating poor morale is much more difficult than doing little things along the way to keep it high.

The same type of scenario is often played out as smaller companies grow. Smaller businesses have a lot of inherent motivators — variety of jobs, more direct contact with top management, more room for advancement.

But, as a company grows, these types of motivators disappear and management often fails to supplement them with other forms of recognition. The situation is often made worse by the increase of demotivators, such as more bureaucracy, policy manuals, approval processes and the like.

In either situation, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Management should strive to consistently keep motivation and energy high.

Vice-presidents at Nobel/Sysco, a food distribution company in Denver, conduct regular employee appreciation lunches where they cook and serve the food. As employees pass through the serving line, the vice-presidents tell them how much they are appreciated.

Ideas like these help maintain a high level of employee motivation.

You get what you reward is common sense, but far from common practice

Everyone likes to be appreciated. A recent survey by the Council of Communication Management confirms what almost every employee already knows: recognition for a job well done is the top motivator of employee performance. Yet, how many managers consider “appreciating others” to be a major function of their jobs? Not many.

Most managers fail to use the potential power of recognition and rewards. This is true even though 33 per cent of managers themselves report that they would rather work in an organization where they could receive better recognition.

At a time when employees are being asked to do more than ever before — to make suggestions for continuous improvement, to handle complex problems quickly and to act independently in the best interest of the company — the resources and support for helping them is at an all time low. Managers tend to be too busy and too removed from their employees to notice when they have done exceptional work — and to thank them for it.

Technology has replaced personal interaction with one’s manager with constant interfacing with one’s terminal. John Naisbitt predicted this would happen more than a decade ago in his book Megatrends. The more work environments become highly technical, the greater the employee need for personal interaction. He called the phenomenon “high-tech/high-touch.” And all this is happening at a time in which employees are looking to have greater meaning in their lives — and in their jobs.

Recognition can be inexpensive and fun, and don’t forget about T&D

Recognition doesn’t have to be expensive. Programs should also have an element of fun. And career development opportunities are also important. For more on these three areas visit www.hrreporter.com, select “Advanced search” and enter article #3173.

The irony is that what motivates people the most takes relatively little to do — just a little time and thoughtfulness for starters.

Remember, if employees are your greatest assets, treat them as such and you will reap the rewards.

Bob Nelson is president of Nelson Motivation, Inc., located in San Diego. A well-known recognition speaker and author, he can be reached at (858) 673-0690, [email protected] or visit www.nelson-motivation.com.

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