How NOT to motivate and reward employees

Employee rewards and motivation aren’t the simple matters they seem. They require thought and diplomatic subtlety. Are your incentives turning employees off?

(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2015. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)

When a newspaper company had to cut costs it made their entertainment writers redundant. To fill the entertainment review columns it came up with what it thought a novel way to deliver reviews and motivate the remaining employees: The newspaper offered free tickets to staff for theater, music and cultural events, but with the condition that they write reviews. The writer of the best review each month would be rewarded with a bonus of $100.

Not only did the staff see that the company was trying to cheaply replace what it had chosen to forgo, through redundancy, by asking the remaining staff to carry out extra work for free, the artists and organizers of the events also realized they were being short-changed. As tickets are generally offered free to media outlets, on the understanding artistic endeavors will receive professional coverage in return, event promoters were surprised to see the newspaper’s advertising sales rep, or office manager, turning up to “review” their play, concert or exhibition.

Needless to say, this “motivational measure” was widely ignored by the paper’s staff, adding to the growing disconnection between staff and management during turbulent times.

If you are thinking about how to best motivate your employees, to ensure they know their efforts are appreciated, here are a few mistakes to avoid if you don’t want it to backfire.

Don’t just reward results

Effort is often just as important as results. While a select few may be responsible for a winning result (a big sale, or a major project for a client completed on time), don’t let those working behind the scenes feel underappreciated. Big projects take a long time to come to fruition and it is important that you keep employees engaged and feeling appreciated for the duration.

Do not promote a superstar culture

Motivating (“incentivizing”) should be carefully balanced so individual success does not appear more beneficial to the business than the work of the team. If staff feels that one superstar is constantly rewarded for the performance of the group, motivation will suffer. Success always should be recognized at individual, departmental and company-wide levels.

Don’t directly and permanently link KPIs to reward

While this may be a great tactic for a one-off or short-term campaign, for example, to increase flagging sales in a certain sector, it can lead to box-ticking behavior if introduced in a heavy-handed way, and even encourage attempts to game the system. KPIs should be there to check that the company is moving in the right direction, not to incentivize (or de-incentivize) staff.

Don’t delay rewards or praise

Studies show there is a direct relationship between how quickly someone is praised or rewarded and how appreciated they feel. It’s easy to think that you will get around to sending out congratulatory emails (or gifts) at some point soon, but every second you delay is another second that someone (or your whole team) may feel unappreciated.

Free guide: Audit your internal communications.

Don’t become predictable

Vary the rewards and incentives you offer from time to time. Familiarity breeds contempt, and once something becomes routine, it is an expectation and no longer a pleasure. Put some time and imagination into ways to make your team feel valued.

What are your views on rewards and motivation? What is and isn’t working for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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