Rewards With No $$$

A reader chimed in with this– Here’s a topic for you:  How to reward employees when there aren’t any $$$. 

Googling this topic will get you millions of hits, so it’s obviously popular.  Let’s be clear on some terms first.  A reward is thing given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement.  This could include $1,000, a pat on the back, a day off from work, etc.  Note that it occurs AFTER the person’s service, effort, or achievement has occurred.  A related, but different topic is motivation, which is the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.  The problem when mixing the two is that intrinsic motivation (doing something for the sake of doing it) is a much more powerful state that leads to higher performance and engagement than extrinsic motivation (doing something for the reward given).  Of course at work, we all get paid for doing our jobs, so this muddies the waters considerably.  Regardless, it is likely that your hardest workers over time are those who are intrinsically motivated and do not require as many, or as obvious, rewards.

If we are talking about rewards that don’t have direct (money to the person) or indirect (buying a one time item, like a restaurant gift card) cost to your organization, there is no stronger reward than praise.  Whether it is one on one, via an e-mail blast, or a public mention of the person in front of your manager, people like to get recognized for their work and most like others to know about it.

If the reward can have an indirect cost, make it something personal.  And, asking him what he would want takes some of the value away (sort of like asking a friend what he wants for his birthday).  This takes knowing the person and what’s special to them, but providing someone with a personalized reward is very powerful.

Another indirect cost reward which can be very effective in recognizing good work is paid time off (PTO).  OK, I do appreciate the irony of telling someone, “You did a great job a work, so your reward is that you get extra time away from here.”  But for people who have busy lives away from work, PTO is a great reward.  Heck, if they are financially well off, even non-paid time off can be one!

What is important about rewards is that they are geared towards the individual in the sense that something that is rewarding for you may not be rewarding for me.  And, what is rewarding for me now may or may not be rewarding for me in 5 years.  To over simplify, what is a valuable reward to a single person working at minimum wage is likely to be money.  To a single parent, it might be time off.  To someone who just worked her tail off to get a project done, recognition to the big boss will do the trick.  Having a one size fits all reward program will not be as effective as you think it will be.

Rewards also say something about your culture in that they make a statement about what your organization values.  As such, pay attention to what gets recognized.  Do you give rewards for ideas or results?  Do people get recognized for doing things that make the work environment more fun?  Are risk takers or managers with low turnover rewarded?

Here’s a caveat of reward programs:  once you start rewarding work with concrete things, employees will start to work for them and be disappointed when they no longer feel they are receiving adequate rewards.  If those rewards are taken away at a later time, it is possible the drive to achieve will diminish.  This is why an intrinsically motivated workforce can be a productive one—the people are working for a purpose and not a paycheck.  Non-profits and start-ups have this.  When people in small companies say, “It’s just not the same here anymore,” part of what they mean is, “People used to work here because they believed in what we were doing and now it’s for a paycheck.”  Keeping that zeal (or cultish-ness, depending on how cynical you are) is a big leadership challenge in growing companies.  You can also keep this culture by selecting/promoting employees based on their level of intrinsic motivation.

If this is sounding too complicated, let me leave you with this:  Simply tell people “Thank you” when they have done a good job.  It goes a long way.

For more information on leadership, talent management and employee engagement, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or [email protected]

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