Recognition – Incentive – Engagement [They Are NOT the Same]

incentives are hard work post

I keep a file of all the articles I find about how to drive performance in organizations. Some are good. Some are horrible. Most are about 50% correct. Even this one will fall short of 100% because at the core what we all are addressing are human beings – who – by their very nature – are 100% inscrutable and unreliable. Just ask my wife.

Any discussion of human behavior has to start with the caveat – “Your mileage may vary. Wildly.”

I was skimming through my file of articles and ran into a discussion on LinkedIn by John Sumser who owns the HRExaminer site. The article entitled: “Recognize the Middle” ran back in February. John was riffing on the idea that recognition spread evenly across the organization can be a negative – too much too often can create an entitlement mentality and “burn out” ultimately decreasing the effectiveness of recognition. And to a point he’s right on the money. Things can be overdone.

But reading the post also reminded me that the nuances of employee recognition, engagement and incentives are lost on many that don’t do this stuff regularly. Recognition, reward, incentive, appreciation – are words that are used interchangeably. And they shouldn’t be.

As an example from John’s post:

“There is no research I can find on the long term effects of incentive driven organizational stress on employees. We simply do not know what happens when the temperature of the organization is raised and held there. You can imagine heightened episodes of stress related behavior, on and off the job..at least for some.

There may be a saturation point. If everyone is recognized, the fees to recognition companies certainly go up. But as is the case with any incentive, routine delivery simply creates a sense of entitlement. Its value as an incentive decreases with repetition.”

First – he’s right there isn’t a long-term study on the effect of organization stress caused by ongoing “incentives” on employees (at least I’m not aware of one.) We do, however, have long-term studies on the application of recognition at companies. Just look at some of the top companies to work for data – most if not all have some form of internal recognition program(s) that have been running for years!

But recognition programs don’t work the way incentive programs do. As I’ve argued for years – recognition programs are foundational elements of culture – it’s what you use to create and maintain social norms for company behavior and help surface the values you want as an organization. Recognition is an after the fact event vs. incentives which are decision architectures – designed and launch specifically to drive a specific short-term behavior. Meaning – recognition doesn’t raise the temperature of an organization and hold it there as if it were a pot of boiling water – existing outside the norm of room temperature. Recognition creates new “averages”, not new highs. It raises the room temperature.

Meaning – recognition doesn’t raise the temperature of an organization and hold it there as if it were a pot of boiling water – existing outside the norm of room temperature. Recognition creates new “averages”, not new highs. It raises the room temperature.

Incentives, on the other hand, do exactly what you think they do – impact specific behaviors – and impact them with extreme prejudice. Incentives are blunt tools and as such need to be wielded carefully. Incentives are not (and should not) be designed for long-term activities. Just as John observed… running incentives for a long time could cause a ton of stress in an organization. Can you say “boiler room” or “Wall Street.” Those are perfect examples of situations where the uses of incentives over a long period time have negative effects. Incentives boil water. For a specific reason, before cooling back down.

The application of incentives and recognition are not interchangeable. They are very different structures and used for very different applications.

You don’t train for a marathon by lifting heavy weights any more than you train for a powerlifting competition by running long distances (not that I have ANY knowledge of those things but I think it applies). Recognition and incentive are different and should be used on different organizational problem and goals and judge based on different outcomes and criteria.

And, as I mentioned in the title, engagement is a different animal than recognition and incentives. So often we also include the word engagement in our discussion of recognition and incentives. But what would you say if I told you that you can drive engagement without recognition and incentives?

I know HERESY!

But truth. Engagement is driven more by trust and communication than reward and recognition. Can reward and recognition help? Sure they can. But they aren’t required. And they aren’t interchangeable.

Engagement is driven more by trust and communication than reward and recognition. Can reward and recognition help employee engagement? Sure they can. But they aren’t required. And they aren’t interchangeable.

  • Rewards
  • Recognition
  • Engagement
  • Appreciation
  • Validation

Each of those words mean different things and they each play on different triggers in human behavior.

Humans are the most variable machine in your organization and getting them to perform is part art and science. It is hard. It takes experience and knowledge. I don’t expect everyone to be an expert in a field they haven’t spent the proverbial 10,000 hours. I’m not an ATS expert – or a recruiting expert. But I have spent 30 years crafting programs that influence behavior using incentives, recognition, validation, communication, training, etc.

Influencing human behavior is hard work.

If it were easy we’d all do it and we wouldn’t have low engagement scores, high turnover, and high dissatisfaction in our organizations.

Good stuff is never easy.


 

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