Why Recognizing Behaviors Is More Effective than Incenting Results

Recognize This! – Behaviors are within an employee’s control. Tell them what behaviors you need to achieve success.

I’ve seen (and written about) countless recognition gone wrong schemes, most usually those that are really incentive sand not recognition. (For the difference between incentives and recognition, I recommend this post.) These incentives schemes often run off the rails because of the law of unintended consequences – you’re hoping for one outcome, but actively encouraging another.

Sales incentives typically fall in their own protected category, however. Sales commission plans are de rigueur and can be appropriate when applied correctly. Then there are schemes doomed to fail, such as incentive caps. Take this example from Jeff Haden in Inc. magazine:

“Incentive caps eventually de-incentivize outstanding performers–or at least limit their overall performance. Say your salespeople are on a 1 percent commission rate for sales up to $500,000 per month. Sales over $500,000 don’t earn a commission. Next month they start over… So what happens? An outstanding salesperson makes sure she goes ever so slightly over $500,000 each month. She could sell more–but what’s the point? If she hits her cap on the 25th, she might decide to hold off trying to close the deal with a hot prospect until the first of the month. Or she might just relax a little and prepare to hit the ground running on the first.

“Incentives signal desires–so even the best employees soon decide that since you don’t want to pay for sales over $500,000 a month, you clearly do not want sales over $500,000 a month. So they won’t give them to you.”

“Incentives signal desires” – that’s why I always encourage caution with incentives programs. Be sure you’re communicating your desires accurately.

What’s a better approach? Jeff offers exactly the right advice in the same article:

“The key is to reward specific behaviors employees control–not the results of factors employees can’t control… In most cases the better approach is to reward specific behavior, not general results. If you feel increased productivity is a worthwhile goal, reward production employees for faster job changeovers or increased up time–reward them for hitting productivity targets. Or for performing specific actions that generate cost savings.”

Motivating employees to repeat desired behaviors requires they know what behaviors you want them to repeat. The most effective way to communicate to an employee desired behaviors is to recognize them frequently, specifically and – critically – in a timely way whenever they demonstrate those behaviors.

Where does your company focus emphasis? On incentives or recognition of behaviors?

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