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Rewarding Employees Can Harm Performance

Here are the top 9 things to watch out for when rewarding employees. Get these wrong and you could end up de-motivating, rather than motivating people

You would think rewarding employees is easy. Think again. Alfie Kohn in his controversial book, Punished by Rewards, quotes studies that demonstrate rewards actually inhibit things such as creativity, risk-taking, information sharing, quick problem-solving. In addition, rewards can encourage directive command and control type behavior from supervisors.


Observations about Rewarding Employees

  1. 1
    Dissatisfaction and reduced performance often result from reward programs. Here are a few examples:
  • People make a great deal of effort; and yet the expected bonus level isn't achieved
  • When there is a belief that only the 'chosen few' will be acknowledged 
  • Rewards are distributed in an uneven or discriminatory manner
  • 2
    Rewards work best for short-term behavior changes. If you want lasting change, a rewards program won't work. As soon as the reward stops the behavior will likely cease as well.
  • 3
    Rewards generally don't change people's values, attitudes, and feelings. You may get short-term behavior change, but not long term commitment.
  • 4
    Reward programs don't get to the root cause of why people may be apathetic or performing at a mediocre level. Which means you will need to find more and more goodies to induce people to perform.
  • 5
    Rewarding everyone equally can lead to conflict and resentment between team members, especially when some people are coasting. 
  • 6
    Rewarding some and not others can create competition, envy, hostility and distrust between groups and group members. For example, award nights can, in an instant, transform the vast majority of people there into losers. 
  • 7
    Rewarding employees for results over which they have limited control can lead to cynicism.
  • 8
    They become an expectation rather than a reward. For example, say a weekly gift certificate is given for achieving a safety standard. It is no longer viewed as a reward. Instead it becomes expectation.
  • 9
    What you reward is what you get. So, be very careful what you reward. For example, there is a huge difference in organizational results between rewarding people for gaining knowledge and rewarding people for sharing knowledge.

When Reward and Recognition Programs are Most Effective

Keep these guidelines in mind if you are going to put in place a reward and recognition program:

  • 1
    The program is straightforward and easy to understand and with little emphasis given to it (i.e minimize the fuss!)
  • 2
    People have confidence in the basis of the acknowledgement. In other words, they know exactly what it takes to receive acknowledgement
  • 3
    Each person has a role in judging his/her own performance
  • 4
    The individual is clear about the manner and techniques they used to achieve the reward. There is emphasis on the behaviors the leader/organization would like to see re-enacted in the future
  • 5
    The person has input into the type of reward that s/he would most like to receive. Give the receiver the choice of reward that suits his/her specific circumstances
  • 6
    Rewarding the employee follows close to the actual performance

Rewarding Employees Summary

Ultimately you need to decide: "Will the program we've decided upon, destroy or build our culture?"

Your rewards and recognition program needs to encourage more of the behavior, thinking and attitudes that allow your business to be successful.

To Successfully Reward Employees Ensure They:

1. Come away with an enhanced sense of self-determination and control over what they do


2. Are not being controlled or manipulated

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