Recognition and reward is tricky

I’ve often said that there’s no substitute for a leader’s judgement.  There are no models, tools, recipes, slogans, symbols, books or charismatic “thought leaders” who can supplant the role of a leader who has hard-won experience and is able to apply thoughtful commitment to making the right decisions in leading others.  It is no different in the arena of rewards and recognition.


We are bombarded continually with things like “1501 Ways to Reward Employees”, vendors offering catalogues of prizes for incentives, compensation consultants espousing new ways to “drive” performance.  We also know from decades of field research and employee surveys that people value non-monetary recognition equally or more so than money.

An unexpected day off.  Being sent to a great conference for learning and development. Extra time with one’s coach to explore career opportunities.  Being listened to and allowed to proceed with an idea.  A surprise bouquet of flowers after a week of late nights.  The list is endless.  These are powerful for people.

Knowing when and how to apply such recognition is the tough part, however.  The leader asks themselves, “Well if I send Frank and his wife out for a dinner on the company, will other employees expect that?”, or “If I give Frank a day off on Friday after his spending weeks on the road, do I violate our time-off policies and programs?”, or “Will Frank come to expect such rewards if I do it too often?  What’s too often?”

Applying this kind of improvisational recognition can be difficult to do, and do well.  I’ve learned to apply some thinking tools in order to get better at it.  And it’s worth it to try to get better, because the result is tremendous:  people feel like their leader really knows them, cares about them and is looking for ways to say “thank you” without being asked.  That feeling creates tremendous trust and affiliation, improves the quality of life for everyone, and incidentally results in much stronger contributions by everybody.

The first tool I apply is to have a good idea in advance of what “above and beyond” contribution looks like.  That definition needs to be in the context of the business model and the challenges of the time.  And if the bar is set too low, then people will come to expect recognition for behavior that is simply required of the role.  Having a clear idea of what behavior truly deserves recognition of a novel, special sort, is critical to being able to apply the judgment of when to use such recognition.

Next, I need to know the person well enough to know what they would value as recognition.  Enrolling someone in a professional development conference that will take them away from their family for three nights may not be the best idea for someone who spends a good deal of their work life away from home.  Sending an employee and their spouse out to a fancy restaurant might be off base for someone whose interests lean towards sports or new experiences.

In the absence of a clear idea of how to recognize someone properly, I know I can’t go wrong with simply giving them more of my time, when they need it and when it’s not an impediment to their accomplishing their objectives.  You can ask someone to go out to lunch with you with the intent of spending time with them, and they might agree but be secretly thinking, “I wish he’d plan ahead on these invitations.  It might be convenient for him today, but I have a ton of stuff to do before my deadline and this just means I’ll be working late at home.”  Better to ask, “When would you be free for an hour or two?  I’d like to spend some time with you better understanding your professional interests so I can look for opportunities for you to get important experiences.”  Hugely motivating to anyone who is interested in advancement in their career.

Pay attention.  Get to know people.  Be constantly thinking of how you can help them along their chosen path.  Give them your time.  Apply recognition and rewards of the non-monetary type in a manner that is congruent with their interests, needs and wants.  Apply them when the person has earned it by demonstrating strong commitment and contributions, at a level that you have previously determined meets the criterion of “above and beyond”.

Do it for years, learning from your errors.  But keep trying.  The effort is never wasted and almost universally appreciated by everyone you lead.

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