Ask an Expert

Q: I want to offer my staff motivational rewards for great performance, but I’m not sure how to get started. We create all sorts of promotional products, but I just don’t know if that’s the right way to go, and handing out gift cards seems thoughtless. I want to do something that really motivates my employees to improve and that leads to more good work.

A: The easy answer would be to continue an outmoded tradition of telling you what kind of carrot to dangle before your staff to get more work, but we know it takes more than the promise of reward or the threat of punishment to get the best work from your employees. Rather than spout a string of fun items and concepts, let’s cover the proper way to reward employees to make the process actually motivational. A wealth of information about motivation and how it affects performance as described here can be found in Daniel Pink’s Drive, complete with a great deal of supporting science and a bevy of useful tips and strategies to help with personal and business motivation.

The trick with rewarding performance, especially in people with creative jobs, isn’t to resort to a contingent reward structure. When you promise rewards ahead of results, employee thinking becomes shallow. In creative jobs, such rewards lead to less creativity, not more. Intrinsic self-motivation is the real long-term power that drives the creative engine and can only be gained via an environment that promotes a certain amount of autonomy, the ability to seek mastery of your skills and a sense of a greater purpose to your activities. That said, there are ways to use rewards in the formation of such a culture.

The safer way to motivate creative workers, as described in Pink’s Drive, is to switch from if-then rewards, those that are contingent on specifically stated goals, to now-that rewards that spontaneously recognize good work. Not only is this type of award less likely to demotivate, but it can team build; for example, employees can choose to award another team member with one of these awards.

Even if the sort of work your employees are doing is non-creative, if-then rewards can become a crutch, one that turns in employees’ minds from a welcome bonus to guaranteed compensation. Even with routine work, connecting your employees to a greater purpose and providing surprise rewards for extraordinary efforts can prove more effective than standard contingent rewards. Provide your employees with tasks that help them become the best they can be, that contribute to something larger than their own portion of the work at hand, and they’ll be internally motivated. Adding frequent constructive feedback and a little autonomy will round out their immediate needs. After that, if you want to cheer them on with now-that rewards, go for it.

What you choose to use – whether it’s gift cards, cash rewards, promotional products or some other special treatment – isn’t as important as the method in which you apply them and the question of value. If your base compensation is fair and the work has a chance to offer purpose and self-improvement, your employees will already be on the right track.

The next step in choosing rewards is to ensure they have real value. Nothing is more demotivating than to be given something either without value, or that’s clearly an attempt to push an agenda. Here’s an example: Directly after a dispute over unfair staff scheduling practices at a friend’s workplace, her employers decided to reward everyone’s mandatory attendance at a workshop with cheaply-made “TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More” imprinted lunch bags. This tone-deaf attempt at praise-scolding employees didn’t have the desired effect.

No matter what you select, ask yourself: Is this item valuable? Is it high-quality? Is it something my employees would enjoy? Does it send the right message? A world of products is open to you in the advertising specialty industry– the trick is to keep in mind the how, when and why so that your reward doesn’t become a problem, rather than a solution.