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How To Motivate Employees With Rewards

The first challenge in awarding bonuses is determining when something is a reward and when it is not. In the classic Star Trek episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles," Chief Engineer Scott wants to stay in his cabin to read technical manuals while the crew goes on shore leave. When Kirk orders him to go on shore leave, Scotty is visibly downcast. Later, after Scotty gets into a brawl and is confined to his quarters, he's overjoyed. Now he can catch up on his reading!

"Although Star Trek was playing this scene for laughs, the fact is that blindly giving awards doesn't necessarily produce the results you would expect," said leadership development expert Stephen Balzac, president, 7 Steps Ahead, LLC, Stow, MA. "You need to take the time to understand what employees value."

Bonuses fall into two broad categories: ephemeral and permanent. Oddly enough, money, electronic gadgets and similar physical items are ephemeral. They produce an immediate response, but over the long term, they fade away and often leave nothing behind.

LASTING REWARD: Treating employees to a nice lunch or dinner outside of the workplace provides a memorable experience. ADVANCE illustration
Experiences, paradoxically, are permanent. Experiences help us grow and are a reminder that we work in order to enjoy our lives. The memory of a pleasant experience remains a positive memory.

Giving an Experience
Giving employees experiences also gives them the one thing that really is irreplaceable: time. "Time is the one thing that you can't bank; no matter how much you save, it isn't there when you go to make a withdrawal," Balzac said. "Giving employees a new toy or gift card may be nice, but everyone knows it is cheap for the company."

When you take the time to offer someone an experience that is personally meaningful to them, it further demonstrates that you've taken the time to get to know them as an individual, not just a cog. "This individual connection is one of the most powerful motivating forces out there," Balzac said.

Before handing out bonuses, consider expectations:

  • Clearly define and communicate the goals of the business.
  • Clearly convey to employees the purpose of their work.
  • Bonuses should help employees share in the success of the company, team or department.
  • Tie the bonus into a larger vision or strategy to avoid the motivation trap.

Balzac defines the latter point as the experience of paying more and more just to maintain performance. Any time the bonus becomes the goal, you risk falling into the motivation trap.

Fit the Action
When possible, the bonus should fit the action: if an employee successfully implements a cost-cutting idea, that employee should somehow share in the results. This is a situation where a cash bonus and an experience (e.g., fancy dinner or theater tickets) would be appropriate if the monetary savings are significant enough.

Bonuses are not just for something extraordinary. "The degree of bonus will change depending on the significance and/or unusualness of the contribution," Balzac said. "Sometimes, saying a simple 'thank you' is sufficient."

You should also use bonuses to encourage behaviors that you want to see repeated. If an employee makes a point to help others, you should encourage that behavior. A thank you, at minimum, is appropriate. Recognizing someone's contribution is a powerful motivator and is a form of bonus. The key is to be sincere.

Secret to Fairness
Ultimately, the secret to fairness is counter-intuitive: it's not to make everything the same. Rather, it's for the supervisor to take the time to get to know each employee and design appropriate bonuses for each person.

"Being a supervisor means knowing your supervisees as individuals, not as job titles. Having that personal touch is the difference between mediocre supervisors and great ones," Balzac concluded.

Karen Appold is a freelance medical writer. Visit for more information.

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