Rewarding Outcomes or the Process * Which Delivers Better Results?

Did anyone else read the Time article on the motivation and reward studies conducted on American school children, designed to determine which bribes worked best in getting desired results?

The study results were a mixed bag. Different approaches were applied in different cities and school systems that had very different challenges. The scheme that worked the best in terms of meeting desired outcomes was the Dallas test in which second grade children (average age 7-8) were paid every time they read a book and completed a computerized quiz. The one that worked worst was in New York where students were rewarded for improving test scores. Zero results.

If you compare those results for external motivators to Dan Pink’s approach of addressing the internal motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose, what are you left to think? I like where Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer blogger, came down on this issue:

“I think the answer might lie in the fact that the NY scheme rewarded results while the Dallas scheme rewarded the process, ie. the actual steps towards the results. I’m going out on a limb here, but I do think that this carries directly over to the business world. At work it is more motivating to reward effort rather than results because while results are rarely directly under your own control, your efforts are. In other words, you can work your butt off on a project or a sale and still not get it because of factors completely outside of your influence.”

As I said in my comments to Alexander’s post: Think of it this way – rewarding outcomes = incentives. Rewarding the process = recognition. To carry it a step farther, incentives are about hitting targets (left brain) and recognition is about applying values (right brain).

That’s why, in most instances, we strongly advocate for behavior-based employee recognition that is focused on company values. In such programs, any employee can be recognized (preferably frequently, specifically and in the moment) for demonstrating behaviors that reflect your company values in contribution to achieving your objectives. Sure, they can be recognized when the final deliverable is realized, but it’s just as important to recognize them along the path when they consistently and sometimes extraordinarily contribute to the coming success.

Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and "Winning with a Culture of Recognition," he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

8 Responses

  1. working girl says:

    Good point – if you reward people for trying they try. Over time trying tends to lead to results. If you reward for results that people don't know how to get you lose that middle step that builds confidence.

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    The only thing I as an individual can control is my behavior. Well-designed incentives (as well as recognition) should focus on the behaviors that lead to outcomes.

    Once we begin rewarding outcomes alone we fall prey to unintended consequences. Think Wall Street. When the bonuses for hitting a profit target are big – so big that they can actually cause me to exhibit poor behavior (bad loans, cooking the books) they cause problems.

  3. Derek Irvine says:

    Precisely, Paul. Thank you for bringing this key point more to the fore as well. I've written before about the power of strategic recognition to curtail the deviant behavior that rewarding outcomes alone can encourage. This is done by recognizing and rewarding only those behaviors and actions that reflect the company values in achievement of strategic objectives.

    For example, you wouldn't be recognized and rewarded for helping increase plant productivity by 30% if you do so by harming the environment.

  4. Derek Irvine says:

    Well summarized, Working Girl. People don't always know how to deliver the stated end result you're looking for. But if you acknowledge and praise their efforts that ultimately help achieve that goal, then you are not only recognizing them for good work, but also training and developing them — through the work — as well.

  5. Ed Nichols says:

    I'd favour a balance approach – reward individual effort as well as outcomes. This way you are supporting recognition as well as sharing success…

  6. Derek Irvine says:

    Agreed, Ed. As in all things, balance is critical. The problem is, too many err on the side of Results Only and ignore the process.

  7. […] Programs to motivate specific behaviors is the fastest growing type of recognition program with a 9% growth rate. Thankfully, attendance programs are dropping the fastest. I never did see the point in recognizing someone for showing up — the bare minimum of the job requirement — or at worst, encouraging them to come to work while ill. […]

  8. […] Programmes to motivate specific behaviours is the fastest growing type of recognition programme with a 9% growth rate. Thankfully, attendance programmes are dropping the fastest. I never did see the point in recognising someone for showing up — the bare minimum of the job requirement — or at worst, encouraging them to come to work while ill. […]

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