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Rewards that Work: the 5 right ways to motivate people

Here are 3 answers to the question: “how can I keep my staff motivated to do great work?”

1-      You can fire them up and inspire them, shifting motivation internally*  [*This is very difficult to sustain though.  Much better to design the work to be inherently motivating and then let inspiration be the icing on the cake.]

2-      You can put together a good bonus or reward scheme, shifting motivation extrinsically.

3-      Or you can design the work to be inherently motivating.

Meet Dr. Jason Fox whose work is around the third option – designing motivation that liberates organisations from the need to pay for performance and rely on incentives and rewards.  He explains how to provide ‘psychic income’ the cheapest yet most powerful way of motivating anybody and everybody.

Over to Jason:

Rewards are a motivation minefield

Sometimes you just want to reward someone for doing great work.  Many of the best-intended incentives and reward schemes collapse collaboration, kill creativity and displace intrinsic motivation.  Goal-linked rewards can also increase the likelihood of unethical behaviour (indeed, it’s what contributed the Global Financial Crisis).

Here are 5 way to get rewards right and enhance motivation:

1) Make them non-contingent.   Instead of dangling the carrot and saying “if you do this, then you’ll get that”… make the rewards a pleasant surprise instead.  “Now that you’ve done that, here’s this for you.”

Swap “if-then” rewards for non-contingent “now-that” rewards.

2) Don’t stick to a schedule.   “Predictable Acts of Kindness” doesn’t quite have the same charm that random acts of kindness does.  Game designers (and poker machine makers) know this.  It’s called the “variable reward ratio” and it means that people don’t know exactly when they’re going to get their next rewards, but they do know they need to keep on playing the game in order to receive it.

Sounds manipulative, I know.   It is.  But let’s not kid ourselves – management is the manipulation of human motivation and behaviour.  Bam.

3) Mix up tangibility.   Tangible (physical) rewards are easy:  some flowers, a box of chocolates, a new watch, gold class movie tickets, etc.

Trouble is, most of us are good at converting their value into dollars-per-hour.  So, if you’ve had someone work overtime for you and put in epic effort to get something finished … even a $60 bottle of wine will be mentally converted by them into “wow, so all of that effort equates to about $5 per hour… gee, thanks.”

Tangible rewards devalue effort.

It’s the intangible rewards that matter most.  The experience-based stuff.  Know that sometimes taking the time to thank someone, organising a coffee with the big boss or writing a LinkedIn recommendation (out of the blue) can make a huge difference.

4) Make it meaningful.   If you’re going to reward something, make it meaningful to them.  If they are a raging introvert, don’t take them out to your favourite karaoke bar.  Likewise, if they’re an extraverted party animal, don’t give them a 3-day silent meditation yoga retreat.

Find the reward that’s right for them.

Alternatively, make it meaningful from you.  If you’re a coffee snob and they’re still drinking mainstream cappuccinos, get them a pour-over kit and some freshly roasted single origin beans.  Add a good grinder, too.

If you’re a jazz flautist, and you know they’re open to new music, get them your favourite jazz CD.  Or, if you’re secretly one of those people that makes things out of wood – make them something.  This is where tangible rewards can work enormously well.

5) Authenticity trumps everything.   Remember, rewards (beyond base pay) are just a tool.  Done well, they can reinforce the motivation to do great work.  Done poorly, they can displace it.  If the work itself is inherently good, ie, if it’s designed in a way that allows autonomy, facilitates mastery and is linked to a higher purpose, then offering rewards can often be a distraction.  Progress is the real reward.

So an authentic expression of appreciation and a reinforcement and recognition of the value provided, is really all it takes to further reward the person.

But for chore work, the tough stuff, the work that’s just bloody hard and poorly designed, a good reward can keep maintain and sustain the motivation.

Dr Jason Fox | making clever happen www.drjasonfox.com | jason@drjasonfox.com

About Dr. Duff Watkins [www.execsearch.com.au]

international executive search consultant / author-- dispensing career advice about how the job market really works


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