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  • Writer's picturePilo

Rewarding top performers does not improve performance

Updated: Jun 9, 2020




A few years ago, I was in charge of stimulating sales performance with our team of representatives. We had a stretched goal and were not tracking on plan... we had only a few months left. What to do? Throw an incentive? This short movie would indicate not!

Indeed, for highly complex activities requiring problem solving and creativity, research shows that a reward (an incentive in the form of cash) does not make a difference... if anything, a larger reward leads to a lower performance. Of course, people need to be paid enough to take the money issue out of the table. Physiological and safety needs have to be addressed. Then, how to motivate people to up their game?

Dan Pink's research on motivation is fascinating. It pinpoints Leaders towards 3 factors to improve performance: - Autonomy - Mastery - Sense of purpose Autonomy may be counter-intuitive. As a leader, you may want to take action in order to resolve a problem, such as a gap in performance... and an incentive would certainly provide the satisfaction to act. On the contrary, research shows autonomy would be a better option to mobilize the resources of your team members... basically just get out of the way. Giving them autonomy would involve creating space and time for them. If you want more engagement, self directed is better... Why not trying to give employees a day to innovate or resolve a problem with total freedom and for only ask to share their learnings at the end of the day - during a nice social with drinks and snacks? This is what Atlassian, an Australian software company tried with excellent results. Mastery is the urge to continuously get better at performing a task or an art. It is what motivates people to play the same video games over and over until they reach a level of mastery which satisfies them or even finish the game. Open source is another good example: thousands of people are developing softwares and operating systems (e.g. Linux) for free around the world. They spend endless hours giving their time and expertise to the world for free. Why? To give back, make a contribution to the world and be recognized by their own community. Imagine bringing that energy to the work place. Working for a higher purpose than beating the revenue or profit plan for that given year or quarter. People’s motivation comes from a higher purpose they can recognize and feel part of. When profit is the only motive, people tend to forget people... and poor products and services get developed. We are not only profit maximizers but also purpose maximizers. Visions like Skype’s or Apple’s have mobilized more energies among employees and customers than a mere focus on results.  Throw an incentive? Better to get past the carrot and stick mentality. When treating people like people, motivation happens naturally. In my past experience, we spent time surveying our team to identify what motivated them coming to work. We were surprised to discover how much sense of purpose people had built for themselves already... we just needed a collective sense of purpose. We took pictures of our team members at work and called out our common sense of purpose “breaking new grounds”... which resonated for an earthmoving company. We left more time for experts to innovate and create their own ideas. We did not reach our goals but we certainly won our people’s heart and got their best energy mobilized for the greater purpose of the company... and the work certainly did not finish at the end of that year...!

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