Why Most Rewards Don’t Work


“The most effective rewards, incentives or opportunities we can give to our employees are the ones they truly want.”— Misti Burmeister

What’s the best way to reward an employee who has gone above and beyond? The short answer: It depends on the person.

A quick Google search will give you tons of articles about how to incentivize and show appreciation to your team – from traditional benefits, to creative perks, to fun and cheap ways you can show them some love. But to really reward a job well done, the best strategy is to find out what each individual wants.

After reading my recent blog post on why volunteers quit, one of my readers, Basil, responded, “This reminds me of a lesson I learned about rewards and incentives years ago.” Then, he shared the following story:

I had a sailor working for me who always went above and beyond. To reward his good work, I gave him 72 hours off.

Considering how many hours sailors work, one would think this reward would be greatly appreciated. But he only gave me a non-enthusiastic, “Thanks.”

When I asked why he wasn’t pleased, he said, “I live on a ship. I have no car. I have no money. This time off has little value to me.”

So I asked what would be valuable to him. He responded, “To go to baking school.”

It made perfect sense, so I made it happen.

When we reward people, we have to make sure it’s what they want, not what we would want.

What an awesome lesson for leaders! And I couldn’t agree more.

The most effective rewards, incentives or opportunities we can give to our employees are the ones they truly want. Of course, in order to know what they want, you have to know them.

How well do you know the people on your team? Consider deepening your understanding of them in the following three areas:

  • Family: For some, this could mean spouses and children. For others, it could mean siblings and parents. Heck, it could even mean a pet raccoon or toy tarantula. You never know … until you ask.
  • Interests: Do they enjoy sports, music or art? Are they dedicated to eating all grass-fed beef, adamant about buying locally-grown produce, or incessantly researching nutrition? (Oh, wait, that’s me. But you get the point.)
  • Career ambitions: Are they interested in learning new languages, strengthening their writing skills, passionate about marketing, or eager to learn how to build the business? How can you help them get the experiences they want?

When you discover these answers (which might change over time, so be sure to continue uncovering more), you’ll be able to provide the most motivating, greatly-appreciated rewards and incentives for your team.

Join the Conversation: What are some creative ways you have rewarded individuals based on what they truly want?

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across GenerationsHidden Heroes and Power Suck.

Misti on Google+

2 thoughts on “Why Most Rewards Don’t Work

  1. Dale S. Brown

    Time off from work, which is a frequent reward, gives the wrong message about work.

    I remember working in my office in the middle of a muddle of small chores to complete a major project which had gone beyond my wildest dreams. I was 24 years old.

    The Executive Director of our organization walked in. I was honored to see him – he was my bosses boss. And I glowed even more when he sincerely thanked me and told me how excellent my work was.

    Then he said, “And I’m going to let you go home now, and take the rest of the day off. We want to reward you for the way you went beyond the call of duty.”

    I misinterpreted what he said and was deeply insulted. I took his kind gesture to mean that he didn’t value my work and also that he thought work was bad- why was it a reward to be asked to leave?

    To make matters worse, I couldn’t leave- the details needed to be done that day if I intended to complete the project in a responsible manner.

    I decided not to let it influence my performance, but the “insult” hurt- and I didn’t reinterpret it for years. Now I see his gesture as well – intended, but encourage other managers to reconsider offering time off.

    If you do offer time off, let the employee pick the time or just add annual leave hours.

    Misti makes a good point. Figure out what the person wants. And look at the hidden message of your rewards.


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