Feature Article - January/February 2009

This is Personal

Targeting the Individual with Engagement

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister


Reward and recognition programs are definitely moving beyond the one-size-fits-everyone-in-the-company-approach. Today's incentives need to have meaning for the individual recipient. This is so important, in fact, that studies show that if rewards and recognition are not personally meaningful, they are about as effective as not having any at all.

This makes it critical to know not only know what types of incentives and forms of recognition will motivate individual employees. It also requires getting back to some basics and the fundamentals of motivation to understand exactly why incentives work so well as a motivator and performance improvement tool.

"It's not complicated, but it is important," said Matt Harris, vice president of marketing for American Express Incentive Services (AEIS), a joint venture between American Express Travel Related Services Company and Maritz Inc.

Harris is one of several industry experts seeing a welcomed, renewed interest in basic motivation theory, and he believes it's important for many reasons. For one, developing incentive programs is not necessarily a full-time job for some program planners and decision-makers.

"For many, incentives are a secondary job or an additional task. They need to expect more (knowledge) from the experts in terms of why incentives are going to provide a better return," he explained. "Also, there still are companies out there giving cash incentives to employees because they 'did the research, and that's what employees wanted.' Our industry knows from years of cause-and-effect research that cash incentives don't work as well as non-cash incentives. We can give one group cash and another group a tangible reward and in study after study the tangible outperforms three to one."

This brings up fundamental issues of what motivation is all about, Harris added. "We give people a tangible reward because we know that it produces a desired behavior change," he said. "We give them tangible reward choices because it allows individuals to select what's most personally meaningful and motivating to them."

To understand why tangible incentives work, we have to tap into the inner workings of the brain. Specifically, we must understand how the brain makes the critical links between tangible rewards and recognition to change behavior, ultimately impacting performance improvement and achievement of organizational goals.