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Ongoing workspan weekly column
The Science Behind Rewards and Recognition

By Ley Borlo, Awardemployees.com and Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., Chiprewards.com

In this new, monthly column, authors Borlo and Klapow team up to explore the relationship between rewards and recognition and behavioral science. Each column will dispel myths about rewards and recognition programs, provoke thought about what we actually know about the success of awards programs, and encourage discussion to find best practices in rewards and recognition.

Behavioral theorists like Maslow, Herzberg, Skinner and others have helped to shape the modern industry we know as “rewards and recognition,” which is also sometimes called “awards” or “incentives” among other names. While their theories have been helpful in discussing motivation and behavior change, in only a few instances have the results of reward and recognition efforts been verified by research. Do we really understand how the behavioral science helps us design awards programs that will produce results? The reluctance of companies to analyze their awards programs combined with the unwillingness of those who do analyze but won’t share that information, forces many to plan their awards efforts without benefit of the scientific evidence to support that plan.

The reward and recognition industry is replete with companies that say they can provide performance improvement strategies that produce results. Unfortunately, many of these strategies don’t work, or worse yet, can produce negative results. Many in the industry have known for years that in any performance improvement award effort, there will be more participants who don’t earn awards than those who do. But is that the intention of a rewards and recognition program? To award only a few? Wouldn’t it be better to have a corporate culture where every worker who improved performance was recognized for that performance? According to 1998 research by A.N. Kluger and Angelo Di Nisi on the related subject of performance feedback, they noted that only a third of those studied actually improved performance, one third stayed the same, and one third actually decreased performance. It is our experience that these percentages hold true for performance award programs as well, which is unfortunate.

No award program is foolproof and guaranteed to produce results, but most programs likely could produce better results. This and future articles in this new workspan weekly column are offered in an attempt to provide scientific support in planning your performance improvement awards and recognition programs. Future installments will address various rewards and recognition-related topics such as:

  • Cash doesn’t motivate as well as noncash awards. While there are many reasons you may not want to use cash, to say that it doesn’t motivate is disingenuous. It is innately tied to our perceptions of reward is a universal motivator in this country. However …

  • The power of award choice. Should choice be a prime consideration in determining the type of award system to use in rewards and recognition program? If so, who should define “choice?” The sponsoring company or …

  • Can there be too much choice? Depending on the type of award company you’re working with, choice is usually defined by their own award deliverable, some are limited some are more robust, few offer true unlimited choice. Individuals can become overwhelmed by too many options, but …

  • Is there a difference between recognition programs and performance improvement programs? The competition and confusion comes from emphasis on different ends of the reward spectrum. To maximize desired behavioral output there should be a continued process of performance improvement incentives, such as ...
  • Do recognition programs alone, drive ongoing performance? To think that awards alone will shape desired behavior is a misunderstanding of the reward contingences because …

Your feedback is welcomed by clicking on the “Comment” section below.

About the Authors
Ley Borlo is executive vice president of Incentives Inc. and is based in Phoenix. He has written for workspan and Engagement Strategies magazine (formerly Motivation), among others.

Joshua C. Klapow, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Health Care Organization at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Klapow is also the chief strategy officer and chief behavioral scientist for ChipRewards Inc., a consumer health incentive company.


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Sat October 17, 2009 1:49 PMReport Abuse
Paul Hebert
Managing Director
Comments: 5
 

I only bring it up because I do think we'll get into the discussion of "were they motivated" - when we really want to say - "were they influenced by (insert x)"  Two different questions.

I believe (and have seen some reserach) that says no one can be "motivated" by another - but we can be influenced by programs, rewards, psychology and some of the stuff coming out the behavioral economic studies.  Some people don't believe we should run incentives and reward programs because they don't really affect motivation - I take a more pragmatic approach - why not if they work and if they are designed well and it helps my company be more competitive.  But...

I think your point on the poorly designed program is well made.  I've seen more badly designed incentive and reward programs than I've seen well designed ones.

 

 
Fri October 16, 2009 12:09 PMReport Abuse
Bruce McReynolds
Specialist
Comments: 2
 

Paul,

I think that we're saying the same thing.

I agree that rewards can influence behavior.  (That's why you had better be careful when deciding what to reward because you might end up with a lot of it.)  But I doubt that you can motivate anyone with a reward system.  I think that, generally, people will try to do the best that they can with the knowledge that they have.  (They might find interesting and challenging more "rewarding," but they'll try to do a good job even when the tasks are menial and repetitive.  I'd like to see someone investigate that.) 

My guess is that the presence, or lack, of some P4P "incentive," recognition or reward system will have very little impact on their desire to do a good job.  However, a poorly designed and implemented reward system may very well disgust them.  (You can't make 'em happy, but you surely can make 'em mad.)  There's another research topic.

 

 
Fri October 16, 2009 11:31 AMReport Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 8
 

To: Julie Geyer

Julie, we found another article that might be helpful.  Please see this link to Financial Week. 

http://www.financialweek.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081130/REG/811259954/1048/careers

Financial Week Online is no longer in business, but I believe you can still access this article.  Good luck

Ley & Josh

 

 
Thu October 15, 2009 2:16 PMReport Abuse
Paul Hebert
Managing Director
Comments: 5
 

Bruce makes an interesting point.  It probably makes sense to put a stake in the ground here.  While we may talk of "incentive" programs driving results - it may or may not truly impact intrinisc motivation - it is simply motivation for the award not the desire to fulfil the behavior from an internal point of view.

I think a lot of the "he said - she said" discussions get started because we don't define the context of the discussion.  There is plenty of evidence that incentives impact behavior and impact results - but I don't know if you can say there is evidence they impacted "intrinsic" motivation.  I don't want to speak for Bruce but unless we're clear on the definitions and terms - we'll just end up talking around each other here.

 

 
Thu October 15, 2009 9:56 AMReport Abuse
Bruce McReynolds
Specialist
Comments: 2
 

Will be looking forward to anything that smacks of science.  AFAIK there is no solid evidence that rewards and recognition have anything at all to do with motivation.

 
Thu October 15, 2009 7:39 AM (edited 10/15/2009) Report Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 8
 

To Paul Hebert,

Nice to hear from you.  Josh and I completely concur with your remarks.  In future columns our hope is to challenge some traditional thinking on the recognition and reward field as one that should not be driven by the sale of the reward, but by all the pieces to the behavioral model that drive the results.

Ley & Josh

 
Thu October 15, 2009 4:49 AMReport Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 4
 

 

Daniel,

Fascinating question-- let me restate it here:

There seems to be two factors related to motivation, internal change and external evidence of the change. We really only see the evidence of change which could take place even without any real internal change in an individual. It will be very interesting to learn from the authors as to what their research shows on these factors. Do companies really care whether there is any internal change as long as the widgets are produced?

 

Let me be a bit philosophical---

There are many factors related to motivation.  Motivation is an internal energy or arousal. It may or may not produce internal change. As well, internal change may or may not produce external changes. There are many examples of individuals who become motivated, and fail to make any behavioral changes. As well, there are many individuals who are motivated, make short term external change and revert back to their own ways.

In my opinion motivation is only as good as it produces both internal AND external change.  Companies need "widgets" to be produced and that is a key endpoint. If individuals make internal change but fail to produce the widgets then ultimately they aren’t benefiting the company. If external change has occurred and it is lasting then one might infer that internal change has occurred as well.  Moreover- even if we can't see internal change, if external change has occurred and is lasting then from the organizational perspective success has been achieved. 

Overt behaviors are key to evaluating change in an individual.  We can’t see what is happening internally and while we can try to measure it indirectly, ultimately the behavior is what counts as an outcome.  jk

Ley and Josh

 
Thu October 15, 2009 4:38 AMReport Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 4
 

Julie,

Thanks for the question... Let me restate it here so it's easy to follow:

 

I am doing some research on whether there is any correlation between a company's success and how they allocate merit increases.  Do companies who aggressively 'pay for performance' outperform those who give all employees a little something at merit increase time?  If anyone has any information related to this question, I would be most interested.  Thanks.

Here's what I think:

From a behavioral science perspective we are talking about paring the reinforcer (i.e. merit increase) with the behavior (i.e. performance). We can examine some fundamental principles of operant conditioning methods which can offer insight. In order for a reinforcer to have an impact on a behavior it must have the following qualities:

 It must be meaningful to the individual (i.e. rewarding)

It must be tied to a very specific target behavior

It must be given in close temporal proximity to the target behavior

 What does this tell  us?  Well- if companies want merit increases to reinforce specific performance behaviors then they should be given only when those specific behaviors occur.  If everyone gets rewarded and if the reward is not tied specifically to the target behavior then those who engaged in the target behavior learn that the reward is not contingent on their behavior. Those who didn’t engage in the behavior learn the same thing.  The result- performers may slack in their performance for lack of reward and non-performers may not change their performance. Bottom line is that rewards should be meaningful, specific and timely…

great question--

Ley and Josh

 

 

 
Thu October 15, 2009 4:32 AMReport Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 4
 

Paul,

I firmly believe in the "replace it vs. criticize it" policy.  Our approach to this field is to bring scientific insight to help everyone figure out if replacement is needed how to best replace and what to leave in place. The advantage to using behavioral science in this field is that it helps you "hedge your bets".  Thanks for the comment and look for practical input. 

Ley and Josh

 
Thu October 15, 2009 4:29 AMReport Abuse
Paul Hebert
Managing Director
Comments: 5
 

It will be interesting to see where this goes - I'm hoping it truly discusses how to engage employees rather than taking the traditional "industry" position that that the solution to all employee issuses is a trip, toaster or gift certificate - when training or communications strategies would be a better answer. 

The overlap between non-cash (or better said non-compensation) based influence is critical in this discussion as the employee see all of that as one big ball of "what my company does for me" - too often we treat them as separate entities. 

Cash, benefits, rewards, incentives - all reside in the same space within the employee's head - even if they reside in different departments in the company.  To me - that is the real challenge - aligning all the influence elements to drive engagement.

 
Wed October 14, 2009 2:28 PMReport Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 8
 

Thanks to all for your comments on our first column.  We are trying to bring clarity to the awards community by providing a scientific basis for the challenges the industry encounters.  We will investigate and bring to this column answers to as many of your questions as possible such as those raised here on program measurement and internal and external motivation.  The more questions and suggestions you submit, the more practical and relevant we can make the column. 

Ley & Josh

 
Wed October 14, 2009 10:04 AMReport Abuse
Jennifer Reimert
Sr Director Global HR Compensation
Member Since: 1/31/1996
Comments: 3
 

I am looking forward to this monthly column.  We have recently seen a definite cultural shift very positively associated with overhauling and improving our R&R strategy, and many of your lead in topics are ones that we learned in the course of our research too.  Onwards & upwards!

 
Wed October 14, 2009 9:36 AM (edited 10/14/2009) Report Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 8
 

Paul, we agree, but are pleased that  WorldatWork has expanded its scope to include this area.  The two fields can be very compatible and when used in conjunction can provide terrific results.  In our opinion, the non cash area has been given only a rudimentary examination by many, and frankly the "consultants" in this field are all too often  looked upon as simply "prize peddlers."  We hope to change that perception.  Having been on both sides of the table, I can assure you the reward and recognition industry has a lot of room for improvement

Ley and Josh

 
Wed October 14, 2009 9:19 AMReport Abuse
Julie Geyer
Human Resource Advisor
Member Since: 1/1/2002
Comments: 2
 

Thank you Paul Weatherhead!  julie

 
Wed October 14, 2009 8:52 AMReport Abuse
Paul Weatherhead
Program Manager
Member Since: 5/1/2000
Comments: 611
 

Ley & Josh,

Thank you for your thoughtful response.  Curious that you indicated that you are not compensation experts and that your focus would be in non-cash fields.  Hard to imagine that this used to be the American Compensation Association.

Nonetheless, I look forward to your column anyways.

 
Wed October 14, 2009 8:46 AMReport Abuse
Paul Weatherhead
Program Manager
Member Since: 5/1/2000
Comments: 611
 

Julie Geyer,

For your research check out these two articles from the WorldatWork Journal:

http://www.worldatwork.org/waw/adimLink?id=16925&nonav=yes

http://www.worldatwork.org/waw/adimLink?id=16807

 

 
Wed October 14, 2009 8:40 AM (edited 10/14/2009) Report Abuse
Internal WorldatWork
Internal Use Only
Comments: 8
 

Paul,

Thanks for your input and concern.  The subjects we will be addressing will mainly be contained within the non-cash reward and recognition field.  Our expertise is not within the compensation world.  However, much of what we will address will have to do with performance based initiatives and as such can cross over into compensation issues.  Over the years we have seen many instances where companies wanted to use non cash based incentives where a using a new cash compensation program would have been more appropriate and vice versa.  When we address traditional views on incentives we will make every effort to provide both sides of the issues.  Thanks again for you input.

Ley & Josh

 
Wed October 14, 2009 8:26 AM (edited 10/14/2009) Report Abuse
Paul Weatherhead
Program Manager
Member Since: 5/1/2000
Comments: 611
 

Ley/Joshua,

I hope in your future dialogue that if  you tear down a widespread belief that you replace it with a better approach. 

For example, if you tear down performance-based salary increases (I don't know if that's your intention or not), please replace it with what you believe is a superior approach to making annual salary adjustments, if any.

As we have recently learned through the Online Community, it's very easy to tear down other people's ideas and innovations.  It's much harder to come up with a better solution.

Look forward to your column.

 

 
Tue October 13, 2009 11:30 AMReport Abuse
Daniel Purushotham
Assistant Professor
Member Since: 1/7/1981
Comments: 2
 

There seems to be two factors related to motivation, internal change and external evidence of the change. We really only see the evidence of change which could take place even without any real internal change in an individual. It will be very interesting to learn from the authors as to what their research shows on these factors. Do companies really care whether there is any internal change as long as the widgets are produced?

 
Tue October 13, 2009 10:46 AMReport Abuse
Billie Day
Partner
Member Since: 1/1/2009
Comments: 1
 

I'm looking forward to more of this.

 
Tue October 13, 2009 10:38 AMReport Abuse
Elizabeth Martin
Strategic HR Consultant
Member Since: 1/15/1996
Comments: 1
 

Worth reading - Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn...  It's a summary of academic research, but an important perspective for compensation professionals to consider.  Elizabeth Martin, CCP, SPHR

 
Tue October 13, 2009 10:27 AM (edited 10/13/2009) Report Abuse
Renee Loustaunau
HR Analyst III
Member Since: 7/1/2002
Comments: 2
 

This sounds like the start of a very interesting monthly column.   I hope that you include a lot of material in future columns on HOW to measure results.   I think a lot of organizations don't measure results, because they institute a program without thinking through or analyzing where they are now, and where they hope to go with the new program.   

 
Tue October 13, 2009 10:12 AMReport Abuse
Gary Hacker
Human Resources Specialist
Member Since: 12/9/1991
Comments: 4
 

This is a very timely and critical area that is long overdue for special attention!  I look forward to future columns. My hope is that it will evolve into a form  of  "Mythbusters for the Total Rewards Community." 

 
Tue October 13, 2009 10:01 AM (edited 10/13/2009) Report Abuse
Julie Geyer
Human Resource Advisor
Member Since: 1/1/2002
Comments: 2
 

I am doing some research on whether there is any correlation between a company's success and how they allocate merit increases.  Do companies who aggressively 'pay for performance' outperform those who give all employees a little something at merit increase time?  If anyone has any information related to this question, I would be most interested.  Thanks.