“A chronic record of mediocre performance may indicate, among other possibilities, that there is something wrong with the job itself or with an organizational structure that holds employees responsible for things that they are powerless to control. Turning the workplace into a game show (‘Tell our employees about the fabulous prizes we have for them if their productivity improves. . .’) does exactly nothing to solve these underlying problems and bring about meaningful change.” — Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and other Bribes

It seemed like a good idea at the time. As The Achieve Group (my first training and consulting company) was rapidly growing and hiring new people, I put together a sales incentive and recognition program. It had increasingly bigger prizes, bonuses, travel, and awards with each sales level or “club” achieved. At one of our meetings, I excitedly unveiled my new reward and recognition program.

It was welcomed with about as much enthusiasm as a thunderstorm at a picnic. “These are the very motivational gimmicks I’ve been so glad to get away from,” said one newly hired sales and consulting veteran. “Yeah. I joined this company to make a difference and prove to organizations that they can succeed by treating their people with dignity and respect. I like money and recognition as much as anyone else, but that’s not the reason I am excited about working here,” added another meeting participant. “This doesn’t fit our values of working together and treating each other as adults. How can we partner with you to build the business if you’re dangling carrots in front of us like we’re donkeys?” asked a third.

They were right. I humbly put away the plaques and flashy announcements. We had put a lot of time and energy into hiring partners — Achievers or associates whose personal vision, values, and purpose were strongly aligned with those of the company. We didn’t want just employees, we wanted people who cared deeply about the business because of what we stood for, where we were going, and why we existed. My proposed reward and recognition program contradicted all that. It was too shallow and crass — even insulting. It threatened to swing attention away from the deep, meaningful issues of principles and purpose and move them to the hollow level of self-interest and selfishness.

Our Values Are Showing

“Well Jones, according to our policy manual you’re about due for a compliment!”

I’ve always felt that managers and leaders use rewards and recognition in very different ways. But I’ve had trouble understanding what those differences actually were. Chapter 16 of Firing on All Cylinders, is loaded with strategies, techniques, and examples of successful reward and recognition programs and strategies. As I wrote the original chapter for the first edition, rewrote it for the second edition, and watched managers and organizations use the approaches I’d outlined, I was puzzled. Why were the same methods highly successful in one organization and dismal flops in others?

Then I shared the speaking platform with Alfie Kohn a few times and read his book, Punished by Rewards. This controversial book takes the dangers and effects of reward and praise to a negative extreme. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. But he presents thoughtful arguments based on a massive review of research covering this topic.

As so often happens with a good book, Kohn clarified and articulated the issues I’d been struggling with: “All rewards, by virtue of being rewards, are not attempts to influence or persuade or solve problems together, but simply to control… Control breeds the need for more control, which then is used to justify the use of control…Punishment and reward proceed from basically the same psychological model, one that conceives of motivation as nothing more than the manipulation of behavior…Good management, like good teaching, is a matter of solving problems and helping people do their best. This takes time and effort and thought and patience and talent. Dangling a bonus in front of employees does not. In many workplaces, incentive plans are used as a substitute for management: pay is made contingent on performance and everything else is left to take care of itself…If it does makes sense to measure the effectiveness of rewards on the basis of whether they produce lasting change, the research suggests that they fail miserably.”

As with so many improvement tools and techniques, the big difference with rewards and recognition approaches has to do with how they’re used.