Yikes! When Rewards Undermine Your Intended Outcome

Over the last several months, I have been working with a passionate group of team members to design a recognition program to reward  staff who exemplified the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity. We wanted the program to enhance the positive and other-focused culture that we have been actively working on.

The team was incredibly creative. We named the program “Feather in your Cap” and designed feather bookmarks and pins that people would get when they received recognition from a number of peers for each principle. We had visions of electronic badges and gamification that would encourage people to participate in the program.

Our first hint that something was wrong was when we reached out to a small group of team members to help us collect feedback on the idea. We showed them the program and asked them to lead the discussion at their tables at the all staff meeting where we rolled out the program. The feedback was clear. The staff was  concerned about how the rewards would be distributed and whether people would feel demotivated by not being recognized. The biggest concern was fairness. People thought it was going to be a popularity contest. Some suggested committees to make sure the nominations were evaluated consistently. Many people said they just wanted monetary rewards.

The design team was discouraged. We made a few tweaks and thought hard about how we could address staff concerns and make the program be more positive. The leader of the group found a video about rewards that go bad. As we met to discuss the feedback, I had a moment of insight. We were rewarding the wrong behavior and instead of promoting, we were undermining the culture we had been so intentionally creating. The rewards were promoting self-focus and competition instead of the Wiser Way principles of curiosity, collaboration, positivity, execution and integrity.

So we did a pivot.

We shifted to entire focus to appreciating others.

We named the new program “Cheers for Peers” and removed all physical rewards. In the new program:

  • Everybody has the opportunity to give appreciation to everyone
  • Each person controls how engaged he/she want to be
  • Focus is on giving, not getting and on others, not self
  • There is opportunity to foster a positive environment

We created a channel on our portal to allow anyone to submit a cheer anytime they want for anything big or small. There is a public gratitude board that shows all of the cheers. There is also a tab that privately shows each individual how many times they have recognized others, the badge they have earned for cheering others, who they have recognized the most and who has recognized them the most. The most important rewards are the feelings you get from recognizing others and being recognized.

After we had developed the new program, we brought the same small group together to see their reaction. The response was incredibly positive with none of the concerns from the previous iteration of the program.  

The day after we showed the small group, we opened up the channel quietly on our portal and immediately they started sending cheers across the organization. We will be rolling out the program across the organization this week and it feels so much better than the original program we designed.

I have learned how easy it is to get the incentives and rewards wrong. And how important it is to test ideas before putting them into practice.

Have you ever had a similar experience when the incentives you implemented undermine the intended outcome? How did you know and how did you adjust?

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