Sixteen years ago, when I was a little baby consultant, I learned one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned about being a manager. I was facilitating focus groups of employees in a large retailer. The sessions followed an employee survey and the purpose was to identify actions that could be taken to promote engagement.  As I was crafting the interview guide, I wrote the question “What could be done to recognize and reward your good performance?”

As soon as I wrote the question, I thought about the two different groups I would be asking it of: employees and managers.  I feared that the employees would give me a long list of things that cost a lot of money, so I wrote a follow up question “What would recognize and reward your performance that doesn’t cost anything?”

I did the employee group first; and an amazing thing happened.  When I asked what could be done to reward them, they talked my ear off for 20 minutes—couldn’t get a word in edgewise!  But counter to my assumptions, they didn’t mention a single thing that cost money.  They said things like “all I want is for my boss to notice when I work really hard on something.” One employee said “the best thing in my 15 years here was when my manager submitted the story of how I handled a shoplifter to the company newsletter!”

[It’s also worth noting that this is the first time I learned that what good employees really wish for is that managers would address poor performance.]

But it’s what happened in the manager focus group that was so interesting.  I asked my first question, this time with newfound confidence that there were many great rewards that were free. Like the employees, the managers too talked my ear off. But unlike the employees, they didn’t mention a single thing that did not cost money.  “I wish we could give out restaurant gift certificates, maybe $50 each.” “I would love to give people a day off, but I’m not allowed.” Fascinating!

I paused the conversation and shared my story with them. I told them how I had assumed that it would be the employees who needed to be encouraged to think of recognition approaches that don’t cost anything. I shared a few of the examples that the employees—their employees—had just asked for.  Almost all the employees’ examples demonstrated that recognition of good performance is synonymous with reward. The recognition itself is motivating, reinforcing, and engaging without needing any tangible benefits.

Fast forward to this week; to a group of 150 managers of a large technology company. I am giving a speech and conducting a workshop on high performance teams. They are working in tables discussing the things they can do to foster high performance on their teams. I am wandering around, listening to the discussion and finding that sixteen years later, little has changed.  The managers are still talking about restaurant gift cards and days off. (It’s interesting that with all the changes in the world over the past 16 years, it’s still food and time that are the top prizes.)  Sadly, they are still missing the point (and the opportunity).

If you lead a team of people, stop and think about your biases around rewards.  What is your mindset around the value of tangible and intangible rewards? What small but significant opportunities to recognize your employees’ contributions are you passing by? How can you reward people with your attention, your feedback, and your gratitude?

Stop worrying about restaurant gift certificates and go dish out a generous serving of thanks.

For a refresher on how to give great positive feedback, check out my Psychology Today post called How to Say Something Nice. Just click here.

Further Reading

How to Accept Positive Feedback

Talent Management Shenanigans

Are you Being Undermined

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