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Rewards and recognition programs need some real help

Rewards and recognition

I’ve written before about employee recognition and even about the mostly-flawed nature of incentive programs, and this one will have some similarities around the concept of rewards and recognition programs.

In short: you spend a lot of time at work, right? Periodically or maybe often, you perform well while there. What are the rewards and recognition strategies the company, or your direct boss, will use when you do well?

This can range from “Starbucks gift card” to “a three-week vacation to Borneo,” and likely how far you get on that ladder is going to be tied to where you are within a hierarchy (and how big a company you work for).

But the problem is: the way we’re doing it now — in most places — is largely a mess.

A money (but sad) quote on employee rewards and recognition

From an article called “Putting Humanity First In Our Organizations,” which admittedly doesn’t happen very much:

Organizational psychologist Nicole Lipkin said that humanity “is the crux of everything” in organizations, yet “we’ve gone against human nature in how we’ve designed them.” She said that excessive rules go against the “sticky culture” of a great team, one on which people appreciate one another and their respective contributions. Instead, these rules instill fear of stepping out-of-bounds. That stifles the willingness to treat people as people.

(1) is that I think Lipkin and I cross-follow each other on Twitter, so that’s cool! (2) is that yes, all of this is right. Excessive rules, for example, are just an example of “process for the sake of process.” They only exist to boost the egos of people in the middle and/or create an essentially uniform culture to minimize risk. When you “stifle willingness to treat people as people,” you reduce psychological safety, which is very important to the development of teams.

The first problem is this, then: the way we set up organizations is to reduce risk (lawsuits, bankruptcy, etc.) — not to engage employees in any way. As a result, this whole rewards and recognition deal might be tough.

You need to realize what matters

To most who run companies, the list would probably include — in this vague order — :

  • Money
  • Growth
  • Pleasing stakeholders
  • The core products/services

Missing from this list would be “people/employees,” which is totally logical. As employee loyalty has declined, people are increasingly seen as interchangeable. So if you want the rewards and recognition, you need to usually do two things in your career:

  • Get close to the power core of wherever you work
  • Become good at making money for other people

Two of the professions people most chase out of MBA programs are (a) consulting and (b) financial services. While tech is “sexier,” those types of jobs make good money. The core reason they make good money? They help other rich people get richer. That’s how you do the incentive ladder properly in most places.

OK, so how do we get better at rewards and recognition?

It’s tough, because it needs to occur at an individual managerial level to some extent. No HR program will be listened to — or even approved if it’s not designed to funnel incentives up a chain.

The fastest path would be increasing intrinsic rewards, which do benefit employees. Here’s an example. One of my sixth-grade teachers was notoriously hard as a grader and overall teacher. I constantly wanted to impress him as a student. At a Christmas play, I realized I needed to close a back door as he was coming over to do the same. He says to me: “Well, I guess great minds think alike.” I was 12 when he said that to me. I’m 36 now. I still can remember it exactly to the moment. Does that make me weird? Of course, in a way. In another way, it’s the human condition. We want that type of recognition and feedback from those we spend time with and seek to impress.

But that’s not normative at work. It can feel like the path to rewards and recognition is only through specific, pre-determined channels. And the reason that’s happening is because of bad managers who think (probably because it’s been reinforced to them) that their goal is to keep people working within these pens and channels.

“Tell them they did a good job? But I had to line edit their report before my boss could see it!”

Of course you did. You’re a perfectionist (good!), and mistakes do happen with work (almost every nanosecond).

But since companies often don’t want to spend money, we need to get better managers better at providing this intrinsic recognition to boost the morale and desire to hit targets of their direct reports.

How do we do that?

I’d say hire more for soft skills, but admittedly that’s also a challenge. The shortest answer is to identify managers from a pool of people who seem respected and connected with co-workers, even if they’re not the best KPI slaves. Having respected, connected people as managers = they will inherently provide more rewards and recognition (even if not fiscal), and people will want to be at work more. There is actually some science to the lessening of employee turnover.

Like most work issues that can’t be explicitly tracked on a spreadsheet, the goal here is to begin with a simple two-step dance:

  1. Acknowledge there’s an issue.
  2. Care about said issue.

We can better about building workplaces (until the robots take over our brains), and part of that is getting better about rewards and recognition programs.

Ted Bauer

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