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?

Stopping the Negative Downward Spiral

CC BY 2.0 - Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr
CC BY 2.0 – Spiral Stairway by aotaro on Flickr

As we are opening up different ways of communicating and working together across campus, it is exposing gaps in expectations, lots of fears, and many stories. Sometimes very talented and committed people escalate their frustration, pick lines in battles between groups, and reinforce negative perceptions about individuals, creating a negative downward spiral. For many reasons, this is a common and understandable pattern that I’ve observed on several occasions.

I am sure everyone one of us can relate to being indignant over the actions of others. I certainly can. I have felt disrespected. I have felt that there is no way to satisfy someone’s expectation. I have felt criticized and unappreciated. I have felt fearful that I am not going to be able to get my work done successfully. These situations make us feel uncomfortable and they are not easy to work through.

The good news is that we are talking about our concerns and frustrations openly and with each other. That is a first step. Now we have the opportunity to work together to change these negative patterns..

We each have the ability to stop the spiral.

As we start talking directly to each other about our concerns in an open way, we are not going to do it perfectly or, even very well. When you receive negative feedback, you may want to withdraw and communicate less. This is the time to communicate more, not less. Try to have empathy and patience with yourself and each other. We are all practicing a new way of communicating and working together. The information that we get, even if it is not delivered perfectly is so valuable. Feedback can help us know where we have not been clear enough and what isn’t working.

We also need to try and assume good intentions from others. This is foundational because it helps regulate our response and keeps us open to listening. I have found it important to also check my own intentions to see what I really want. When my intentions are based in fear and are not positive and supportive, it is difficult to imagine that others are acting more altruistically than I am.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge our part in creating the negative downward spiral and environment. I had a situation at work where I was constantly frustrated with a smart and negative colleague who was very critical of me and my team. I avoided him and minimized his feedback. This had been going on for years.  At the urging of my coach, I deliberately practiced withholding personal judgment, spent time talking with him personally, and looked for opportunities to acknowledge his contributions publicly. He became a friend and advocate. That was such a powerful lesson for me because I couldn’t see my own part in creating the negative pattern. I thought it was all his fault.

As I have shared these principles with several individuals, I have been appreciative about how open they were to change and willing to partner to create a more positive, effective, and collaborative team environment across all of the groups at Temple.

My invitation to you this week is to commit to doing your personal part to stop any negative downward spirals in your world.

Practicing Giving and Receiving Feedback

Give Without Expecting
https://www.flickr.com/photos/pictoquotes/14020634976

I had so much fun at the all-staff meeting we held this week at Temple University and felt very supported by the team as we practiced giving and receiving feedback to create a more open and collaborative culture. We invited all of our IT colleagues from across campus to join us for the meeting and many of them came, which was terrific.

I was able to incorporate some of the feedback from our previous meeting. Specifically, I heard that some team members were uncomfortable at our last meeting because I asked everyone to share personal stories with someone they didn’t know. Also, I received a suggestion to use technology to solicit more honest feedback and make people feel safer. To address this concern, I used PollEverywhere to create anonymous polls scattered throughout the presentation.

fear-to-freedomAfter giving an update on the action items from our previous meetings, I introduced the Fear to Freedom model to the group. This is a simple and powerful tool that has helped me recognize when I am in fear and focused on myself and to manage myself to a more open and free state of mind.

The heart of the training was around how we can think about feedback as a gift that we graciously give and receive from a place of freedom and openness. These are the principles that we asked everyone to follow.

When giving feedback:

  • State facts – be specific
  • Leave out generalizations (all, every, always) and judgement (good, bad)
  • Go direct – preferably in person
  • Check your intentions
  • Ask if the person is open to feedback
  • Use “MRI” – Most Respectful Interpretation – of others’ actions.
  • State the problem from your own observations

When receiving feedback:

  • Listen attentively
  • Say thank you
  • If you are not in a place to be open to feedback, let the other person know
  • Assume the best intentions
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Avoid being defensive (going to fear)
  • Take the feedback away, determine what you want to do with it

Then we broke into groups of three and alternated roles of giver, receiver, and observer playing several scenarios designed to show how fear can interfere with either giving or receiving feedback.

After the first scenario, I asked the group whether it went as they expected and many of the groups indicated that they were surprised that the gift of positive feedback was not well received. Each person only saw the following information for the role they were playing.

  • Kelly (Giver): Pat is a peer and one of the best people on your team. It has been a crazy couple of weeks on the project and the entire team has been working really hard to make a deadline. Pat really helped you out personally by the way s/he maintained a sense of humor and optimism. You want to let Pat know what a difference s/he made to you personally and the team.
  • Pat (Receiver): You have often felt that Kelly is quite competitive as a team member and a brown-noser and looking to advance at the expense of the rest of the team. You are not sure if you trust Kelly.
  • Observer: Watch to see if the giver asks permission and is specific in the feedback. Watch to see if the receiver sincerely thanks the giver and if there is any underlying tension in the exchange.

One giver described in bafflement, how the receiving partner responded to his sincere thanks with abrupt, monosyllabic thanks that made him want to stop giving praise. The receiver reported that he felt he was being open, but that was not how the giver or the observer felt about his responses.

This simple role play demonstrated how much our internal stories influence our actions and put us into a closed, judgmental, and fearful position. When we take this defensive and fearful stance, we can discount all feedback, even when it is positive, from individuals based on our previous interactions or even things we have just heard about them.

When we can master our stories and stay out of fear, we can break the negative cycle and be in a powerful position to influence and change outcomes. The most common question that I got after the meeting was what if all of our attempts to extend in openness and kindness are rebuffed. My answer was that we can never change anyone but ourselves. If we can stay in a place of freedom where we continue to be positive and open in giving and receiving feedback, we will be happier and more successful and productive independent of whether anyone else changes.

The quote on the picture that I found for this blog answers this question much better than I did. When we are looking for something in return to our gift of feedback, it is our ego showing up. We are focused on ourselves and want validation, not what is best for the person who we are giving feedback. We are operating in fear, not in freedom.

The slides from the meeting with all of the scenarios are available online. My challenge to you this week is to practice giving and receiving feedback using the principles above. I would love to hear from you to see how your practice is going.