Editor's Desk - March/April 2011

Don't Forget, It's All Relative

When you're asking yourself what works best to motivate and inspire people to achieve great things, there are some crucial factors you need to keep in mind. People vary, and their motivators will likewise vary. Also, corporate culture and context matter.

While one person might get excited over the chance at winning a flat-screen TV, the person sitting at the next desk might not have any interest in a flat-screen TV at all. (Admittedly, that would probably be a rare person, but as a rare person myself, I know it to be true.) And if both of those employees are working for an organization that doesn't provide an environment in which they can succeed, they're probably not going to be able to focus on the good feelings associated with the reward anyway.

Let me give you an example of how this can play out.

When I was in college, I worked as a server in a restaurant that regularly doled out "rewards," but the rewards were empty of meaning, and the environment was less than supportive.

There were three managers in the place. Two of them were great to work with. They pitched in when things got busy, and they were wonderful motivators. The third manager was, shall we say, less than perfect? Oh, let's face it, she was downright awful. She would get in a person's face and yell. She would literally shove servers as they left the bar with trays of drinks. (I had a pair of strawberry-margarita-stained khakis to attest to this.) When it got busy, she would retreat to the kitchen, where she continued to yell at anyone unlucky enough to pass through her field of vision. And no one was immune from her temper tantrums.

In this job, I was named Employee of the Month three times in a five-month span, at the recommendation of that particular manager. (Side note: Sometimes people who yell really just want someone to yell back.) Now, along with the little plaque on the wall with your name on it, you also got to choose a tchotchke from the managers' office. This stuff was, to put it politely, junk.

It hardly felt rewarding.

What would have been rewarding? A free meal, perhaps? (Hey, I was a college student.) A gift card to a local merchant? Certainly there are better ways to reward employees than a token thanks, a 50-cent gewgaw and an occasional shouting match.

Beyond the reward, though, there were other flaws in the system. Flaws that, had they been corrected, would have made the entire job more rewarding. Better management and more teamwork would have made a huge difference in how every employee felt about the work they were doing.

As it was, any good feelings from the recognition I received were quickly flushed down the drain in the context of that dysfunctional environment.

Since then, I've had other jobs with ineffective managers. And in every case, the power of recognition received was dulled by the negative feelings associated with the corporate culture that could allow—and even reward!—those managers' bad behavior. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who's been in that situation.

So, when you're deciding what works and what doesn't as a reward, you need to remember these things. You need to remember that the reward is basically going to be meaningless if it's not accompanied by a culture in which a person feels valued and appreciated. You also need to remember that the strength of the reward to motivate a person, to give them that warm-fuzzy-feeling experience, is going to change depending on the person. One size does not fit all. And context matters.

And, when your target audience—your employees and sales reps, your partners, your customers—aren't performing up to snuff, it might be time to find out why. Do they have the tools they need? Have you provided the right motivation? Or, are you subtly punishing them in ways that make it impossible for them to reach the goals you have set? Are you undermining your incentives with a culture that works at cross-purposes to the very goals you hope to achieve?

It's not a cut-and-dried thing, this business of incentives. It's all relative.

Send your thoughts on this or any other article in our March/April issue to editor @pipmag.com.


Emily Tipping
Editorial Director,


Send your thoughts on this or any other article in our March/April issue
to editor@pipmag.com.