How do you reward?

The cover of Punished by RewardsSeveral years ago, I read a fascinating book called Punished by Rewards: the trouble with gold st★rs, incentive plan$, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn.

The basic premise is that, as the back-of-the-book blurb summarizes, “people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. The more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do.”

That word – “bribing” – is telling, isn’t it?

And we know from studies by Gallup and other researchers that money (salary, bonuses, commissions, and so forth) is not the primary driver behind employee engagement and job satisfaction.

So how do we reward?

The challenges of incentives, engagement, and motivation are far from straightforward. In fact, Kohn suggests that we cannot “motivate” someone to do something; instead, “All we can do is set up certain conditions that maximize the probability of their developing an interest in what they are doing and remove the condidtions that function as constraints.”

That’s a mouthful. What I understand from it, on a very basic level, is that we need to follow a few simple steps.

Understand your people

It should be no surprise to you that people are different, which means how they prefer to be appreciated varies from individual to individual.

At the very broadest level, an extrovert typically loves public recognition, whereas an introvert typically prefers more privacy. Please note the word “typically”; this is not true of all extroverts and all introverts… which is why I say, Understand your people!

If you’ve read some of my articles on Professional Empathy, especially the three listed below, you’ll have a good sense of what I’m recommending. (Each opens in a separate tab, so you won’t lose your place here. The second – the three levels of empathy – is one of my most-read articles.)

What IS empathy, anyway?
The three levels of empathy
A simple, fun empathy experiment

“Fair” is not “equivalent”

If you’ve taken the time to think about the differences between your team members, you’ll quickly come to realize that equivalency is a trap.

Fair means treating people according to the good old Platinum Rule: how they want to be treated. Not how their cubicle neighbor wants to be treated (that’s the equivalency trap), and not how you want to be treated (a variation on the equivalency trap). How they want to be treated – each individual – that’s what fair means.

(Here’s another relevant article: Is that fair?)

Reward appropriately

That, of course, is the punch line.

And there’s a LOT that goes into that simple statement: reward appropriately.

I’ll break it down into a few ideas for you, but remember: the first step is always to understand your people. And understanding your people means knowing them well enough to have a sense of who they are and what they enjoy.

A few ideas

It starts by knowing what you’re rewarding them for. Is it a big achievement? Go for one of the ideas below. Something smaller, but something they did especially well? Check out this article: Why thank you isn’t enough.

These ideas are just to get your idea-generator going. And remember, in some cases a bonus, raise, or promotion (with raise) is absolutely appropriate. I’m leaving out the financial rewards here because your organization undoubtedly already has a well-established process for them. It’s the non-financial aspect of reward and recognition that we’re exploring here.

Speaking as a knitter myself, if I had a knitter or crocheter on my team, I would absolutely get them a gift certificate for a good local yarn shop or online outlet.

Pay attention to what they talk about (understand your people!). Lots of family time and kids’ activities? According to the season, there could be any number of fun events to offer. They love gourmet cooking? Try specialty stores such as Penzey’s Spices or a local gourmet outlet.

Are they ambitious and career-oriented? Perhaps you can introduce them to a valuable connection or mentor. (Be careful about offering to mentor an employee yourself; that can lead to perceptions – and even accusations – of favoritism.)

You get the idea, right? Paying attention to what someone enjoys makes the reward personal and meaningful, and therefore special.

Yes, it takes work

It takes work. It’s an effort to understand each of your people at that level. But you can systematize it easily enough – for instance, take a few notes when you hear someone talking about what they enjoy.

And I can promise you that the rewards of having a high-performing, productive, engaged team that consistently exceeds expectations is well worth the effort.