Rotten to the Core: The Story of How the Best and Brightest can be Ruined

The objective of an incentive is to incite action within an organization using a device or mechanism that that allows the rewarding or recognition of behaviors. This can be accomplished by offering preferential treatment, money, privileges, promotions, verbal praise, or complements. With that states, I suggest the answers to the questions above are:

~ YES ~
~ YES ~
~ YES ~

I admit this topic is not the norm when it comes to the subject of employee moral. Usually this type of discussion involves companies that are not in tune with the pulse of their workforce and have severe performance issues that could be further aggravated by either non-existent or poorly functioning incentive programs.

The one thing you will not walk away from at the conclusion is that somehow recognition is wrong, or that employees should not be motivated, and that incentives are no longer a viable factor in performance related issues. However, sometimes while trying to do the right thing excessively well can actually produce the wrong results, for the right reasons.

I believe that the greatest management principle explains that what gets rewarded gets done. If you are not getting the desired result within your organization, ask yourself what behaviors are being rewarded. It's a very simple, but very powerful question.

I've practiced it, trained others on it, and believe it should represent the cornerstone in any improvement initiative. Over past 8 years, I've created countless bonus structures, incentive plans, and contests designed to drive sales performance, attendance improvement, attrition reduction, and quality initiatives for entry-level employees all the way up to senior managers. When I say, "I believe in recognition, and incentive programs", I mean it and have the experience to back it up.

I like to think of incentives and recognition as wonderful little gifts that are awarded to the best and brightest for going above and beyond or for one's voluntary willingness to perform a potentially undesirable function in attempts to assist the organization. Employees work for their agreed pay rate, and these gifts are sprinkled around to promote an environment of appreciation and good will for a job that is both appreciated and well done.

With all this good will in the air, what seems to be the problem? What happens in the midst of the chaotic business environment is the context of the incentive can become confused. Without context, the meaning and objective is no longer anchored and becomes subject to interpretation. These suggestive interpretations can originate from poor communication, lack of specificity, or failure to maintain the differentiation between job expectations and an incentive or reward. In a worse case environment, context and interpretation loss can create an informal employee contract where performance is no longer contingent on their agreed to wage, but rather on the existence and significance of an incentive.

To help your visualization I've included both obvious and subtle situations that can result from interpretation - context loss.

Attendance Trap? To discourage absenteeism an incentive bonus is put in place, as a result employees come to work and have great attendance. Supervisors support this policy by encouraging workers to come to work so they do not miss out on the bonus. The employees continually receive this incentive, but then attendance improves for the organization, and the bonus is dissolved.

? What is the context in which this employee will view this situation?

? How will they view the value of attendance without the incentive?

Sales Slip? An incentive program is put in place to boost poor sales performance. If an employee meets their sales goal, they can receive an incentive of several hundred dollars. Supervisors encourage their reps to do well so that they can be "in the money". This continues for several months. Employees are now expecting this as part of their income, but due to financial problems with the company, the incentive is discontinued.

? What is the context in which this employee will view this situation?

? How will they view achievement of their sales goals?

Supervisor Motivation? As a super seller, an employee's consistent performance ensures her team is ranked among the best within the company. The employee has an attendance issue, but is solid player when present. The supervisor is lenient on the attendance policy, and chooses not to hold the employee accountable for fear the employee might come to work even less or eventually have her employment terminated due to poor attendance. Instead the supervisor discusses the value of being at work and says that the policy needs to be followed, but in conclusion congratulates her on her success with sales.

? What is the context in which this employee will view this situation?

? How will the supervisor be viewed?

Team Quality? In this situation the associate comes across a rough and abrasive to customers, but his aggressive approach produces high sales numbers. The other team members are aware that his quality is below standard. The supervisor in an attempt to recognize his top-seller presents him with a certificate and $5 gift card in front of the team and shakes his hand for a job well done.

? What is the context in which this employee will view this situation?

? What is the context in which the employee and his team will view quality?

Lack of facts?
An employee has a daily issue with taking excessive breaks. One day, the employee received kudos from a customer for doing a great job handing a tough issue. The manager hears about the compliment but does not know of the problem with the individual's excessive breaks. The manager in an attempt to recognize good performance makes a generic statement by telling the employee they are doing a great job and to keep it up.

? What is the context this employee will view this situation?

A manager's error?
A supervisor is continually recognized for strong leadership and decisive action. The manager in an attempt to keep this supervisor motivated continues to praise her excessively at every opportunity. The supervisor receives the employee of the month award and has excellent team statistics. The manager placed this supervisor on a pedestal that was unrealistic and could not be sustained. Soon the supervisor makes an error, and the manager has to coach her for the first time.

? How will this supervisor view her manager situation?

? How will this supervisor view this situation?

Additional tips and areas of caution for the above situations:

? Use specific recognition, as opposed to blanket praise.

? Keep employees grounded by reinforcing the fact that they are paid to do a job, and anything extra is not permanent, and represents a gift from the company.

? Bending the rules or rewarding top employees with un-balanced performance can effectively disgruntle and suppresses your entire middle population.

? Using an incentive in place of a performance management process builds a culture that only performs when rewarded.

? Unrealistic standards only create a higher level for employees to fall from.

As you consider the above scenarios and examine similar situations in your own work setting, dwell on the importance of context, and how it applies. Focus on perception and understand that it is reality. Remember, while trying to do the right thing, you can get the wrong results. Above all, remember to use the greatest management principle as your guide:

What gets rewarded gets done. If you're not getting the result you are looking for, ask yourself, what's being rewarded?

- Have you earned the Right To Lead? Aubie Pouncey is a contributing writer and member of this new website. If you are interested in his ideas or are looking for effective ways to manage then you will be interested in this: