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Doug Blizzard
The employee incentive that works like no other

The one reward that most employees crave, but few get, doesn’t cost anything to provide.

February 3, 2014
by Doug Blizzard

When employers brainstorm ways to reward employees, it’s logical to put compensation, incentives, and bonuses at the top of the list. After all, few people are able to work for free. 

But is there a “best” reward—a reward that every employee craves but few receive? Many management teams are in search of just such a reward. My firm is frequently asked to provide managers and HR professionals with low cost, or no cost, ways to reward employees. The blogosphere also is full of lists of ways to reward employees. I even saw a book with more than 1,000 reward ideas. 

These resources suggest everything from pizza parties to extra time off to premium parking spaces. There is nothing wrong with any of these ideas, and the more creative you can be the better. However, there is still a much higher reward that won’t cost you anything and will produce positive employee motivation. Have I piqued your interest?

OK, here it is: The one reward that most employees crave—but few get—and that is almost guaranteed to motivate employees to do good work is quite simply … praise. Praise is a very powerful idea that managers often forget about. Bosses usually are good about recognizing and pointing out bad behavior, but they often forget to recognize good behavior. 

Think this sounds like a bunch of “touchy feely” HR stuff? Don’t be so quick to judge. As it turns out, receiving praise actually stimulates a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine, something we all need. Shortages of dopamine can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and difficulty in learning. But receiving more of the chemical boosts feelings of pleasure and pride, according to a report from Gallup Business Journal. Once you get that rush, the brain wants more of it, needs it regularly, and instinctively figures out what behaviors result in more praise and thus more dopamine. 

So we have a relatively simple concept that produces quick increases in employee motivation that doesn’t cost anything. The workplace must be awash with employee praise, right? In fact, research conducted several years ago by Gallup found that less than one-third of American workers strongly agreed that they had received any praise from a supervisor in the last week. That’s a sad statement about the quality of supervision that many employees receive each day. Employees who think that nobody cares about their work will be less motivated. Some leave the company. Others remain on the payroll but essentially quit working.

There are many reasons for this lack of praise. Some managers don’t regularly praise because they are too busy and just forget about it. Others don’t praise because they don’t receive any praise from their boss either. Some managers worry that recognizing one employee and not another will make it look as if the manager is playing favorites.

To compensate for these problems, some companies institute regular events to recognize employees: “Per company policy, employees will be praised on the second Friday of each month in the cafeteria.” While there’s nothing wrong with company events, they shouldn’t be the only source of praise that employees receive.

How can employers do a better job? First, it’s important to differentiate between appreciation and recognition. Appreciation is the act of expressing gratitude to employees for their positive actions. It is best accomplished through simple expressions or statements: a simple thank you, a card, a pat on the back. Recognition means acknowledging workers in front of their peers for specific accomplishments, actions, or behaviors. It’s important to tailor both of these strategies to each employee’s personality. Some people just don’t like to be called out in public. 

Where managers really miss the mark is with frequency. To be most effective, employees need the dopamine rush at least once a week. Noted leadership author Mark Murphy found in a study of more than 500,000 employees that 72% said they were not giving 100% at work. No doubt many were suffering from a lack of dopamine. So make it a goal to show appreciation for each of your employees at least twice each week. And for those employees you feel don’t deserve appreciation? That’s a subject for a future article.  

If you just don’t have time to recognize or appreciate your employees on a regular basis, you should take stock of your daily activities to make the time. Remember, genuine praise produces quick increases in employee motivation, and it doesn’t cost you anything. Before you start handing out gift cards, make appreciation and recognition a priority—then watch how morale, motivation, and productivity improve.

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Doug Blizzard is the director of member development for CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with offices in Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C., that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability.