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Maximizing motivation: why well-intentioned incentive programs don’t work and how to improve them

Maximizing motivation: why well-intentioned incentive programs don’t work and how to improve them

This is an excerpt of an original commentary piece which appears on Sales & Marketing Management authored by Rick Garlick and Bob Nelson.


Several years ago, a company came up with a creative way to recognize its top performing employees. Through a nomination process, a select group of high achievers would be given a couple of days off from their normal jobs, flown to a nice venue, and asked to participate in a series of “think tank” exercises with senior management on how the company could operate more effectively. In the evenings, they’d be treated to nice dinners and other activities to give senior leaders a chance to personally interact and thank these top performers.

While on the surface, this incentive strategy had some validity, the results were not what the company predicted, or wanted. High-performing employees were frantically making calls, begging not to be nominated for this award.  Some may have even tanked their performance just to be taken out of contention. The reasons were several. First, this trip sounded like work, not fun, and just because they were gone for a few days did not mean their real work wouldn’t pile up and be waiting for them upon their return. Second, many of these performers were married and the idea of travel, even incentive travel, meant their families would be on their own for a few days. Last, and certainly the reason most painful to senior leaders, was that the employees had no desire to have social interaction with their company’s officers. They felt they had nothing really to talk about, got nervous, and were afraid they might get too loose during the social interactions and get themselves into trouble with their bosses.

Unfortunately, the previous scenario is not uncommon in companies today. Everyone recognizes the importance of rewarding and recognizing high performers for their work. Employers rightly believe that simply providing a paycheck is not enough to keep people striving to do their best.

Yet, even among companies that generally have positive work cultures, satisfaction with recognition is almost always among the lowest-rated items on the annual employee opinion survey. It almost seems like no matter how hard companies try to recognize employees, and regardless of the financial investment in employee recognition awards, these recognition programs achieve their intended effect. This usually leads to a couple of different scenarios. Either employees become indifferent toward employee recognition, or companies, seeing that these investments aren’t paying off, simply do away with their programs over time. A third scenario is that employers constantly seek to make their programs more meaningful, which is usually a quixotic quest.

To make recognition programs more meaningful, you first must step back and understand why these programs aren’t working. The reasons are usually straightforward.

  1. The people in charge of creating recognition programs design programs that would be meaningful to them.  In the previous example, the company’s leaders assumed their high performers would be as engaged in the company’s operational effectiveness as were they. They also presumed everyone would like to get away for a few days, and of course, who wouldn’t want to spend quality personal time with their company’s leaders?
  2. There is a prevailing belief that all people like to be recognized the same way. Closely related to the previous point is that everyone likes the same things. For example, of course people like programs where you can accumulate points that can later be redeemed for merchandise or other types of tangible rewards. While many people do find the accumulation of reward points to be an appealing incentive, there are some who accumulate thousands of points, never to redeem them. Not everyone likes to be put on a stage and publicly recognized. Others prefer to simply be thanked by a co-worker than receive a note from the boss. A common way of recognizing good workers is for the boss to take the employee to lunch, when the employee would find lunch with their family to be much more rewarding.
  3. There is often an almost exclusive focus on tangible rewards.  If you ask most employees how they would like to be recognized for good work, you will most frequently hear, “pay me more money.” While there are few workers who wouldn’t want to be paid more, simply giving people more money becomes part of compensation and no longer holds any trophy value for the recipient. In fact, cash bonuses almost become an expectation. When you don’t make your bonus, it feels like a pay cut rather than a performance reward if you do. Points, often become equated with dollars, and therefore, also start to feel like currency rather than something that has intrinsic meaning for the recipient. There are many employees who find a simple thank-you or a note from a supervisor or co-worker to be meaningful. Beyond that, giving people the opportunity to have flexible work hours, or work from home, is for many, one of the best ways to recognize that you trust your people. Similarly, giving people the opportunity to attend a conference or learn something new can be a nice way to recognize high performers. Some companies would be surprised to learn there is a portion of their workforce for whom the most satisfying recognition would be to give them more responsibility on the job. Still others might welcome the opportunity to have a forum to hear their ideas heard in an accepting way. There are many ways to recognize high performers that don’t involve giving them something tangible.
  4. Programs lack creativity. After a while, recognition programs can get boring. The same people get recognized every year, the award is the same, etc. To address the monotony, think about new ways to recognize high performers. Perhaps it’s flying in a long-lost family member. It could be providing them a chance to eat in a restaurant they’ve always wanted to try; or perhaps attend a taping of their favorite television show. The possibilities are limitless.

Read the remainder of the original commentary on Sales & Marketing Management.

Rick Garlick is vice president and strategy consultant at Magid. Bob Nelson is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., and the author of “1501 Ways to Reward Employees.”

Nelson is presenting a free webinar for Sales & Marketing Management entitled, “Creative Ways to Recognize Your Employees at Year’s End,” on Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 11 a.m. Pacific time. Learn more and register to attend here.

Nelson and Garlick will present a free webinar, “Why Recognition and Incentive Programs Don’t Work and How To Fix Them” on Jan. 22, 2019. More information and registration for that webinar is available here.


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