Not all reward and recognition programs work — does yours?

Consider the axiom “You get what you reward”

Few management concepts are as solidly founded as the idea that positive reinforcement — rewarding behaviour you want repeated — works. Recognition for a job well done is, in fact, the top motivator of employee performance.

The ways to recognize and reward employees are endless. So, how do you find the rewards that work best? Are there some that don’t work?

Any reward has the potential to be effective, given the right set of circumstances, so it’s difficult to rule out different types of incentives carte blanche. While it is true that a gold watch at retirement is more than a little passé, if that is what an employee has his or her heart set on, it could still be the perfect form of recognition.

It seems stock options would always be popular, but research shows that employees that are given stock, but have little say or involvement in decision-making in their company, tend to be more frustrated than those who aren’t given the chance to own stock. So really, when it comes to forms of recognition and reward, one size does not fit all — you need to vary the form of motivation with the specific needs and interests of those you are trying to motivate.

To increase the chances of being on the motivational mark, consider discussing the planned forms of reward with those that you are hoping to motivate. Better yet, find out what they feel would be exciting and make them feel appreciated, and try your best to do those things. What motivates people varies widely today, so eliminate the guesswork in motivation by starting with the ideas, interests and motivators that are most important to your people.

For example, most dotcom companies tend to be made up of younger employees who want to be fully engaged and passionate about their work. Give them leeway and the chance to pursue their ideas and learn new skills. Challenge them with interesting work or give them full responsibility to take control of a situation.

In a recent session I conducted, a young man stated he felt most motivated where he worked when his company gave him full contact with a key client, trusting that he would do what needed to be done to meet that client’s needs. Another program participant, who managed younger employees, said he varies the routine at work to make things a little more exciting. For example, when he wants to hold a group meeting, he finds he gets a better response when it’s held outside on some picnic tables than when it’s in an empty conference room.

Where incentives go wrong

Not all reward and recognition programs work. Ineffective incentives often start to go wrong at the earliest stage, when management unilaterally announces that they have decided to give everyone T-shirts, a holiday turkey, or a round of golf. Deciding what employees should value without checking what they do value is a sure way to increase your risk of missing the mark.

Another basic mistake managers and organizations make is expecting a recognition program to always remain effective. Many formal recognition programs that were once very good run out of energy, get boring or lose the enthusiasm of all involved. Programs sometimes lose touch with those it was designed to excite, and the recognition loses its impact or worse, becomes a joke in the organization. Maybe recipients are viewed as management’s favourites instead of deserving of the recognition.

Even the best programs need to be re-evaluated and updated from time to time — usually sooner rather than later.

The shelf life of a typical recognition program is closer to 15 to 17 weeks, not years. Find out what’s working and what’s not and adjust the program accordingly.

A third basic mistake managers make is to do the exact same thing for every employee. It is an attempt at fairness, but few things are as unfair as the equal treatment of unequals. This tends to alienate top performers who become upset that they were not given special treatment for all they did while at the same time reinforces average and even marginal performance. The maxim, “You get what you reward,” unfortunately works at reinforcing both top performance as well as poor performance.

Work is increasingly becoming a state of mind rather than a place to go. Effective rewards and recognition need to adapt to the changing circumstances of work and the changing values and expectations of workers.

Determining what will best motivate your employees will continue to be a moving target that changes over time and with the changing circumstances of the work itself, the workers you have doing that work and their preferences.

Stay close to your employees to see what they value, be open to possibilities of doing something you have never done before and test the waters often to see if something new is needed and that what you are doing is still working. Be willing to experiment and be quick to leverage motivational success when it occurs.

Bob Nelson is author of the best-selling books 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, and 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, all published by Workman Publishing, and Managing For Dummies, published by IDG Books. For more information visit or call 1-858-673-0690.

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