Have you ever seen the episode of The Office in which Dwight Schrute tries to motivate the staff by awarding "Schrute Bucks" (fake money with his picture on them) for good behavior and performance? Schrute Bucks not only did not motivate his staff, they did just the opposite. No one cared about the fake money. It seems that companies often throw their own version of Schrute Bucks at their employees to try to entice them to work harder. That seems to work no better for today's employees than for The Office staff. So what should we do to really reward our employees? Here are suggestions for developing a reward system that has a better chance of motivating your employees.
Find out what rewards are attractive to your employees. We assume they want more money, mugs, certificates, etc. without ever finding out how they view those things. Don't assume that what we as managers think are the best rewards would be seen as the best rewards to our employees. In one company I know, the managers were not interested in giving certificates for good performance, yet their workers really valued the certificates and proudly hung them in their offices.
Explain to people how rewards are determined. Clearly communicate this to employees because you can be sure they will have a lot of questions.
Distribute rewards fairly. You can bet employees will notice if this is not done.
Provide rewards in a timely manner. Don't wait for a year to go by before thanking someone or rewarding them for exemplary performance. Find opportunities to reward them in a more frequent, timely fashion.
Use rewards to reinforce constructive behaviors. Remember the purpose for rewards is both informational (telling them what they did that was effective) and motivational (inspiring them to keep engaging in the behavior).
Consider flexibility. Some companies allow employees to pick their own rewards from several choices or catalogs. Before you follow that path, however, first find out if flexibility is important in your organization. While some employees like this approach, others feel weird picking out their own reward with no feedback from their managers. Even if you give them options to pick out a reward, their boss should still personally thank them for their performance.
Vary the awards. Provide appealing external rewards (bonuses, gifts, etc) as well as internal rewards (interesting work, autonomy). Keep in mind that your employees come from different backgrounds with regards to age, gender, ethnicity and interests and may have very different views on what they find rewarding. Don't assume they all value the same things.
Periodically check employees' perceptions regarding the fairness of how rewards are allocated and whether the rewards still have meaning to them.
Some managers figure that if they can't give money as a reward then there's nothing they can give to employees. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Especially in these times when money is tight, it is important to let employees know you value and appreciate their contributions. Use time off, meals, parking spots, office or computer equipment, tickets, flextime or the opportunity to dress casually as ways to provide rewards.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.