Everyone knows that people will do things that bring monetary rewards–think commissions for salespeople. People will sometimes do amazing things, even illegal things, for the promise of money. What is often less understood is the power of intangible rewards. Thing like recognition and status can also motivate people. In other words, people work for praise.
The Power of Rewards
More than 100 years ago, Edward Thorndike came up with the Law of Effect that said people (and animals) would continue to perform behaviors that are rewarded. This simple idea has led to the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) where experts apply the principle of rewards to motivate behavior in mental health services, prisons, schools, and the workplace. Getting the most out of the ABA approach to dealing with serious educational or mental health problems requires extensive expertise, but anyone can apply the idea of rewards in every day leadership.
Applying Rewards with Employees
Motivating is one of the three pillars of maximizing employee performance. You can motivate employees by rewarding the behaviors you want them to perform. Many organizations use monetary rewards to encourage more productivity. The first that comes to mind is sales commissions, and such systems do result in more sales. Others use merit pay to encourage better performance, which can go beyond productivity. However, not every organization can afford to use a pay for performance system, and such systems have drawbacks in that they can be stressful for employees. The good news is that there are other kinds of rewards that work.
People Work for Praise
The People Work for Praise principle says that rewards do not have to be monetary to be effective. People value appreciation, praise, and recognition. Providing it costs little and can be highly effective in motivating employees, and it has few drawbacks. It is easy to brighten an employee’s day with a simple thank you. This works for several reasons.
- It is an ego boost. People like to feel a sense of self-efficacy—that is, they are good at doing their jobs. There is perhaps no better way to build self-efficacy in your employees than by telling them when they have done well.
- People want to know they are having impact. I have used an exercise in my undergraduate college classes where I ask everyone to write down three things they want in their career after graduation. The number one thing students say is that they want to have a positive impact on others and on the world. When your boss tells you he or she appreciates you efforts, it sends the message that you are having a positive impact on at least that one person. And because the supervisor is seen as an agent of the organization, that impact is on the employer as well.
- It can provide feedback. Learning job skills and maintaining performance requires feedback. An employee needs to know if their performance is good, or if it needs improvement in some way. Praise for a job well done tells employees that their performance is good, and they they should continue doing what they are doing.
How to Best Reward Employees
To be effective, rewards have to follow the sorts of behaviors you want. It does no good to praise an employee for job performance that is substandard. All you are doing is encouraging the employee to continue to be substandard. Reward employees for things they do right. Here’s some tips.
- Appreciation versus praise. There is a difference between showing appreciation for effort and praising accomplishment. Acknowledging effort is rewarding the person for trying. Praising accomplishment is rewarding the person for results. If a poor performer is trying, it makes sense to acknowledge the effort to encourage continued effort and hopefully improved performance. Try saying something like “I appreciate that you are working hard. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
- Do not be stingy with expressing appreciation for efforts and with saying thank you.
- Be clear about what you are rewarding. Vague statements “Keep up the good work” are not as helpful as clear statements “Great job on that thorough report—I appreciate that you got it to me early so I had time to review before the deadline”
- Rewards can be used to develop people. New employees in particular cannot be expected to be top performers from day 1. Acknowledge obvious efforts and praise performance using a reasonable standard for stage of career. Use the principle of successive approximations by raising the bar for what you consider praise-worthy as the person builds skill. An achievement that deserves mention might go up incrementally over time.
- Do not play favorites. Showing appreciation to some employees and not others can create problems. Those left out will feel unfairly treated, and it can create tension among employees who must work together. It is fine to acknowledge those who perform unusually well, but do not neglect average performers. It is still possible to show them appreciation. If you do not, you might demotivate them as they feel you do not care if they perform well or not.
One thing to keep in mind is that people lose motivation when what they do is unrewarded. The People Work for Praise principle can be used to help maintain motivation by providing intangible rewards.