Does this sound familiar? It’s a Friday and another day at the office. Today is employee recognition day. As usual once a month the department manager gathers the whole group for a one hour meeting. Employees come to the faceless conference room and await the monthly employee recognition celebration. A committee of managers and a human resources representative meet monthly to decide which employees will be given the award. The group selects 5 people around some subjective criteria and the award winners are announced in this team meeting. Each winner gets a $50.00 coupon for dinner. As the names are announced everyone in the audience shifts uneasy in their seat hoping their name won’t be called. The winners feel a little embarrassed to be picked and wonder if this will affect their relationships with their peers who didn’t get selected. They also worry if they will have to work even harder next month. The meeting ends with a cake and all in all around 2 hours of productivity is lost which accounts for thousands of dollars. Still, management and human resources go away feeling good they motivated the staff!
It is not possible to motivate others
It is not possible to motivate others. Yet, we still try. Managers assume that implementing programs to motivate with the promise of reward or the threat of punishment is just what people need to stay alert at work. From my experience it’s quite opposite. More emphasis should be spent teaching people how to motivate themselves which in turn leads to greater productivity and overall benefits to the bottom line of the organization.
More emphasis on alignment
People feel good at work when they can align their abilities and interests. People feel even better without the threat of punishment or reward. Managers should hold off the temptation to reward or punish. They both work only short-term. As the British researcher Herzberg suggested, most people want the same basics at work (good boss, nice office, competitive salary, and interesting work). When this is in place people are more interested in their own personal growth and at some level making coherence out of the work they do.
I can remember early in my work career a sales contest. The manager brought all of us into a room and told us how poorly one product was doing. He announced that the person who would sell the most in the following month would win a trip to Hawaii. I can remember thinking to myself, how silly this was. I figured even then that this contest would actually drive down sales. The overemphasis on the prize would cause loosing the focus on the customer. I was right. Sales dropped 30 % the following month during the contest. It would have been better to explain to the sales team the problem with the underperforming product. Also, it would have been better to work on improvement of the product so that the sales staff would be proud to sell it to the customers.
The famous Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said ‘It is better not to make merit a matter of reward less people conspire and contend.’
Quick and efficient
Modern management likes quick results. Placing emphasis on reward and punishment is easy to measure. It can scare people enough to get short term results. Long term it robs the soul out of people and their work. There are many dangers with rewards. When reward is the goal the focus gets very narrow. I can remember my senior management days when our bonus targets were set in January. We reviewed our goals monthly to make sure our large bonus numbers could be met. This can be a huge incentive when the bonus can be up to 10 times your base salary. The problem can be as the business requirements change management still remains focused on the bonus goals from earlier in the year. Instead would be much more important as the business changes to focus on the work which needs to be done.
Rewards lead to bad habit
When rewards are at stake, the easiest route is taken. When this occurs, courage, creativity and risk taking goes down.
Studies by Deci and Kohn and others have even suggested that at best by rewarding a person who does not like his work, he gets satisfied only until the next bonus. Worst, when rewarding a person who likes his work, his performance goes down with the new threat of monitoring for an activity which once a person found enjoyment out of.
The aim is collaboration
Ask any manager and you will hear: ‘We want our people to work together’.
Yet if you study the management system you will find processes, programs and reward activities which force competition between people.
Stop the overemphasis on rewards and punishment
Pay people competitive salaries and provide work worth doing. Help people to do right work which gives challenge and matches their abilities and interests.
Where possible give employment security, eliminate all forms of competition between people, and encourage open communication and a trusting environment at work.
Throw out old ideas
The time is now for new approaches to enabling success at work. Think if you had to enable people development at work and you couldn’t reward or punish what would you do? This is the most important question for the best manager to ask.