Friday, March 18, 2016

The Downside of Employee Recognition Programs

Could there be a potential downside to non-monetary award programs for employees? Management scholars Timothy Gubler, Ian Larkin, Lamar Pierce set out to examine this important question. They collected data from an attendance award program at an industrial laundry plant. The company recognized employees with perfect attendance at an all-hands meeting. From among those recognized, one person's name was randomly selected to receive a $75 gift card. 
The researchers discovered that people did respond positively to the incentive for perfect attendance. However, people also tried to game the system, and their attendance record sagged after they lost eligibility for the recognition. The scholars also found that, "The awards crowded out intrinsic motivation in internally-motivated employees, who were already performing well by coming on time in the absence of rewards. These employees had increased tardiness after the program was implemented and they lost eligibility." In other words, the recognition program caused a drop in motivation among those workers already doing the right thing with regard to attendance.  The drop in internal motivation by these good employees led to a slight drop in productivity in the plant overall. Gubler explained the findings to Science Daily:

"Conscientious internally-motivated employees who were performing well before the award program was introduced felt the program was unfair, as it upset the balance of what was perceived as equitable or fair in the organization. So their performance suffered -- not just in terms of their attendance but also through a motivational spillover that affected other areas of their work -- including productivity."

What's the lesson here?  I do not think we should conclude that organizations should not recognize the good work of their employees.  However, we should think about what precisely we are rewarding, and how it might affect the behavior of our best employees.  They might already be engaging in the behaviors we wish to encourage.  By rewarding people for what our best employees are already doing, we might be demotivating our stars.  

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