This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the perils of rewards, and now I’m going to talk about using rewards. Bear with me. As we discussed earlier, rewards can be very useful when they are a form of feedback. It’s when they become the goal that they become problematic. The nature of the reward also matters: some rewards force us into the motivation trap, while others are easily amenable to becoming something we do with people.
It turns out that the most common form of reward, cash bonuses or items, easily slip us into the motivation trap. Cash or items, be they t-shirts, fleeces, laptop bags, tech toys, all produce much the same results: a short-term blip followed by, at best, nothing, at worst long-term dissatisfaction. While some people use cash to buy something they’d like, most of the time the extra cash goes to paying bills or toward a rainy day fund. Cash also creates an expectation of an even larger cash reward the next time around.
Giving people tech toys or other things seems like a nice idea, but actually doesn’t work. First, the reward feels impersonal: look, everyone in the department got a new phone. Of course, that can get tricky, since some people like Android and others iOS. A more serious problem, particularly with technology, is that the gift loses its appeal very quickly. All it takes is a newer, fancier tech toy to hit the market and suddenly that old gadget is no longer cool: Now it makes you look behind the times. In early 2012, Apple announced the iPad HD, popularly referred to as the iPad 3. It was definitely an amazing gadget. In October, they announced the iPad Retina, an even more amazing gadget. As several newspapers reported at the time, Apple fans were furious. Suddenly their new iPad HDs were obsolete. One analyst commented that he didn’t understand the fuss: if the HD was a good device on Monday, before the iPad Retina was announced, why wasn’t it a good device on Wednesday? He was, of course, missing the point: the excitement wasn’t in having just any gadget, it was in having the newest gadget. In the end, things lose their motivational power very quickly: getting a new iPhone is fun for a week or two, but after that it’s just another item that I stick in my pocket along with my wallet and keys.
Rather than things, lasting happiness and motivation are produced through experiences. It is the opportunity to go off and do something that we enjoy that really builds long-lasting motivation. There are several reasons why this works.
First, in order to give someone an experience, you have to have taken the time to get to know them and know a little bit about what they’d like. If you have an employee who loves watching the Olympics, giving her tickets to attend the games would be extremely effective. However, if you gave her tickets to the opera, maybe not so much. As we learned as kids, it’s the thought that counts. While that is not an absolute truth, as anyone who has ever received a particularly ugly sweater can attest, knowing that someone cared enough about you as a person to arrange for you to do something you deeply care about is a very powerful motivating force. Again, treating someone as a person as opposed to a generic tool on the team is extremely important.
The other thing about experiences, though, is that they never lose their value. Our memories of the fun times we’ve had remain positive memories. They don’t stop being positive just because we might do something else. Graduating from high school can still evoke memories of pride and accomplishment even in someone who went on to gather advanced degrees from a top college. If you enjoyed learning to wind surf while on a vacation, the memory of that enjoyment will always be with you even if you never wind surf again.
The things we do become part of who we are; they shape us as people in a way that gadgets cannot. Sure, it might be nice to receive a new camera right before a major vacation, but the camera isn’t what makes the vacation fun. It may help us remember our trip and it may enable us to share some of our enjoyment with others, but rarely is it the point of the trip.
Experiences do not have to mean vacations, although that is important. We’ll discuss that further later in this chapter. Experiences can be work related. For example, continuous learning is a form of experience provided by the organization to those who desire it.
Providing people with the opportunities to do things they value builds their relationship to the organization: by providing the opportunity, you become their virtual partner or supporter.
Experiences can be used on a group level as well. While having organized, group activities is certainly a good thing, it should not be the only thing. Low level teams try to do everything together to build team unity. This is silly and counter-productive. In one case, a certain organization sent members of a group to a state fair. The manager insisted that everyone stay together and attend the same events, whether everyone was interested or not. Rather than building unity, it only created division.
Physical objects are ephemeral. Experiences never grow old, never get stale, and don’t become obsolete when someone announces a new model.
Riveting! Yes, I called a leadership book riveting. I couldn’t wait to finish one chapter so I could begin reading the next. The book’s combination of pop culture references, personal stories, and thought providing insights to illustrate world class leadership principles makes it a must read for business professionals at all management levels.
Manager Mechanics, LLC
Nationally Syndicated Columnist and Author