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Motivating behaviour so people perform, and an organisation performs.

Rewards and punishment sound like an old way of providing motivation. Society is allowing us to open to the possibility of experiencing school and work differently – and that looks like enjoying the journey to get there rather than just the attainment of a certificate, particularly as our constructs of intelligence broadened from intelligence quotient to emotional or social intelligences and value is needed in skilled craftsmanship as much as it is in academics or management. 

Yet, in organisations, rewards form a big part of a total rewards package, and in some cases a way for an organisation to make an effort toward the retention or motivation of staff in a structured way. It often carries a monetary reward, and motivates extrinsically, and can be coupled with leadership behaviours to reward staff in other, more meaningful ways.

From my time in large international organisations an approach to HR and its programs seems well suited to an approach characterised by a natural, biological and evolutionary basis (what is it that people psychologically or emotionally need now), one that is systemic and relational (can it build relationships in a natural way and handle the variability and complexity of humans conferring rewards to other humans). I carry in mind the purpose of rewards that may change a transactional way of implementing HR or safety programs, and that is that rewards need to be a way in which people can be acknowledged and seen for all of the skills and leadership they bring to the company culture or task. How is this best done for the people in the organisation? The best rewards I have encountered is establishing a valued connection and an appreciation for not just the deliverable but the behaviour used in the completion of task like collaboration. Absolutely everyone in the organisation believes they deserve to be rewarded and certainly, they should feel valued for what they bring, and so we have to allow an organisations’ programs and culture to bring this.

Some items worth considering in establishing a formal rewards system are:

  1. The attainment of rewards should not be the main goal but completion of a task well done, or recognition of extra-citizenship behaviour
  2. Treat rewards carefully. Rewards without transparency and consistency and criteria can bring up a multitude of challenges and resistance to its appropriateness and use. Rewards confer power onto people usually in a monetary sense, and power is relational. Decisions about power should be made with an understanding of who holds it, who is motivated by it, and who is resistant to it; and how it can change behaviours (both positively and negatively)
  3. If the organisation is after a culture of appreciation and collaboration, couple it with conversations with many people on how they already show appreciation within their teams, and if a formal reward program is necessary. Without the research into the customers of a reward program, and its co-creation and fit a reward program can be seen as just another initiative. If suspicion or frustration already exists around the total rewards for employees, and a formal program is set to measure who gives or receives rewards then the program is likely to fail
  4. Figure out what staff really want. If the purpose of the reward program is to motivate or retain staff have some conversations to find out if rewards are the preferred way of doing that. There might be something else more important to sort out, like allowances, salaries, or job fit that staff will suggest they need.

I have a project management colleague who told me recently that the biggest pitfall to some projects that he’s seen are those one’s that don’t spend enough time in the concept or consultation phase. He suggests to play with idea’s and thoughts about purpose to really define what it is that the organisation is wanting to create.

Rewards for International Workforces

So, you’ve decided to implement a formal reward program. Excellent! When deciding on reward structures and methods, it’s a good idea to look at a few elements of rewards:

  • Is it an intrinsic or extrinsic form of reward (i.e. acknowledgement of internal skills or abilities and internal motivators; or external rewards such as bonus, certificates or monetary reward)?
  • Are you considering how the rewards are determined?
  • Who is the rewarded being made by, and to whom?
  • What method will be used (a public forum, or a tool)?
  • How will it be measured, and for what purpose?

There is a lot of value in leaders giving rewards that are intrinsic by nature. This might be good feedback, added responsibility, and the understanding that someone has seen you. Intrinsic motivation can be grasped quite easily for managers and their teams – its about what is driving them toward success.

In different countries, for different cultures a reward can be given based on differing criteria. They can be based on equity (what is done to receive the reward), equality (what is fair within the group), or seniority. Equity allows for the work to get done. Equality maintains group harmony. And seniority maintains hierarch. In some Middle Eastern and African cultures the need to maintain group harmony and a steer toward the maintenance of seniority is most important and where there is a mix of cultures inside of an organisation this criteria may not be overly apparent or seem inappropriate.

To add to the dynamic, rewards can also change depending on the context in which they are made so that a group can be rewarded for the same achievement based on different criteria from one day to another.

The criteria for reward also needs discussion about who is making the reward – there can be culturally or socially defined in-groups and out-groups (those communities that have a basis for relation and trust outside of working together) so a discussion of who holds the power to make rewards and how they make rewards for team members and others outside of their teams or cultural groups should occur. This also leads to a discussion with leaders about how they reward their teams, as there can also be big individual variability in how rewards are made.

Bringing awareness to this process for decision makers can be useful. If employees see rewards as being unfair they’re less likely to want to work towards its achievement, and this can also damage relationships and the perception of leaders.

Using Rewards in Delegation of Tasks, and To Condition Behaviour

Rewards are effective for delegation. Where leaders delegate a task there is often the assumption that successful completion will be followed by a reward be that additional responsibility, promotion, monetary reward, and individual and team success. In the eye of the person who has the task to do, the perception of the reward is important – if employees believe the reward is highly probably and significant then it can become a powerful motivator. This is dependent on their leaders approach, so some awareness and communication about rewards can be useful to leaders.

Practitioners may often use smaller rewards in order to ‘nudge’ or condition behaviours – this is often seen in behavioural psychology with the idea of bypassing thought processes to reward or punish behaviours that create habits that are thought to be sustainable. I’ve seen the use of phone cards, or ‘the safest employee’ award used by organisations. To condition behaviours, rewards need to be given for specific behaviour in a consistent and immediate way in order to affect change. Any deviation from the reward consistency or criteria is likely to be frustrating, or lack effect. This method can also be costly both in terms of its continued success and the administration of it.

If you do implement a formal rewards program, make sure to:

  1. Do the research
  2. Build it based on the preferences of the employees in the organisation
  3. Reward on a meaningful level
  4. Keep it consistent and transparent
  5. Allow for continual feedback and communication where processes are not working.

Literature that I use:

Peter, B. Smith and Bond, Michael, H. (1998). Social Psychology Across Cultures. 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall Europe: UK.

Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Sahlin, K., Suddaby, R., et al. (2013). The Sage Handbook of Organisational Institutionalism. Sage Publications: UK.

Mullins, L.J., Christy, G. (2013). Management and Organisational Behaviour, 10th Edition. Pearson: UK

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