Should Employees Be Asked to Choose Their Own Rewards?

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Jess Graham, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Decades of research have shown that, when done effectively, providing rewards to employees can boost performance, morale, and productivity. What’s somewhat less conclusive is how leaders should determine which rewards to provide. Many leaders are tempted to just go out and ask their people what they want – but should employees be involved in the process of identifying and selecting their own rewards?

Some of what the research has shown us is:

  • There are multiple ways to assess reward preference, with varying levels of accuracy.
  • Managers aren’t necessarily effective at identifying employees’ preferred rewards.
  • Even after they’ve been identified, employee item preferences can change almost immediately.

This presents a conundrum for leaders who want to get good at rewarding performance. If we don’t ask, we might not pick the ‘right’ thing. If we do, then there’s the question of how to ask, how often, and how to avoid entitlement issues.

Thankfully, in the field of Organizational Behavior Management, researchers, consultants and professionals have been studying this topic for years, in search of the optimal way to select effective rewards. The trick is to systematically collect information about preferences, and if you do ask, figure out the best way HOW to ask.

Here are a few suggestions that have been tested in the field.

 (Note, the below suggestions are regarding ‘rewards’ including tangible items, giveaways, celebrations etc., as opposed to remuneration such as pay rates/bonuses/performance-based pay. There are several great texts such as those by William Abernathy for guidance on adjusting remuneration to support high performance.)

Plan ahead.

Managers often make the mistake of asking one very innocent, but insincere question: “What do you want?”. This runs the risk of 1) showing the employees that the manager doesn’t care enough to get to know what interests them, 2) creating entitlement issues where employees expect to ‘get stuff’ as part of their job, or 3) making the discussion more about the stuff than on the performance that earned the stuff. Planning ahead helps to ensure preference information is collected in a way that’s well-received.

Just get to know them!

We can learn a huge amount about what others are willing to work for by: learning what they like to do on the weekends, asking what types of tasks they enjoy, finding out what they want to improve on professionally, and just observing what they do. Even something as simple as asking about the photos hanging up in their workspace or their plans for the weekend can give us a vivid picture of what interests and motivates others – as long as we’re paying attention & making a note of it somewhere.

Try a Preference Assessment.

A more formal approach to identifying effective rewards is a tool called a Preference Assessment, where employees can rate or rank the items they prefer the most. A great place to start is the example provided in the Daniels & Daniels Performance Management text. This survey is a simple and established way to show employees you’re interested in learning more about them, in an organized and data-based way.

For large groups, try this process:

  1. Make a list of potential reinforcers (from the employee perspective, not yours!).
  2. Make a list of pros and cons for each.
  3. Run your ideas past your leadership peers, or 1-2 trusted employees that will give objective feedback.
  4. Try it out, and watch for the effect.

WATCH for the Effect.

We tend to hand out our rewards, and sit back and rest on that comfortable feeling of accomplishment that we did something for others… and totally forget to watch to see whether it was well-received! This is the best feedback you can get to know if you’re creating the intended effect – and what to do the same or differently next time. There are two clues to watch for: their reaction, and their performance.

Here are a few examples of what you may hear or see:

  • Employees turning up to work in their new jackets they received for completing a project, vs. “Oh wow, baseball caps! I don’t really wear them, but I’ll give it to my husband.”
  • “I would love to have the opportunity to lead the next project, thank you so much!” vs. Procrastination on starting a new project, antipathy or excuses towards the topic
  • 100% turnout at your after-hours celebration function vs. People making excuses or staying late to work

To get the most impact for your rewarding efforts, make sure there is social reinforcement provided at the same time. An easy way to do this is to state, in a sincere way, what behavior or accomplishment you observed, and what was the impact to you, the team, or the company. When in doubt about providing tangible rewards, you can always stick to a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for a positive result!  To read more about what I’ve described above, check out the list of selected readings below!

Selected Readings:

Abernathy, W.B. (1996). The Sin of Wages: Where the Conventional Pay System has Led Us and How. Atlanta: Performance Management Publications.

Daniels, A.C. & Daniels, J.E. (1989). Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Atlanta: Performance Management Publications; 4th edition.

Wine, B., Gilroy, S., & Hantula, D.A. (2012). Temporal (In)Stability of Employee Preferences for Rewards. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 32.

Wilder, D.A., Harris, C., Casella, S., Wine, B. & Postma, N. (2011). Further evaluation of the accuracy of managerial prediction of employee preference. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 31(2).

Wilder, D.A., Rost, K. & McMahon, M. (2007). The Accuracy of Managerial Prediction of Employee Preference: A Brief Report. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 27(2).

Wilder, D.A., Therrien, K., Wine, B. (2005). A comparison between survey and verbal choice methods of identifying potential reinforcers among employees. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 25(4).

Wine, B. & Wilder, D.A. (2009). The Effects of Varied Versus Constant High-, Medium-, and Low-preference stimuli on performance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(2).

Jess Graham, M.S., is an experienced business person, and formally trained behavior analyst who has been creating results in business through behavioral science for 15 years. She believes everyone deserves to work for, and be served by, businesses that are successful and healthy, and is especially passionate about helping others learn the behavioral technology to make this happen.

Jess has dedicated her career to making a positive impact through influencing workplace culture, leadership development, and service excellence, to affect business results and make a difference in the quality of the lives of employees and their clients. Through applying the science of behavior and continuous improvement, she has contributed to the success of change strategies in a wide range of businesses, including manufacturing, mental health, education and customer service settings. In coaching leaders at all levels, and sharing the science of behavior with thousands of individuals, she has loved seeing firsthand the positive effects of implementing behavior-based strategies in any type of workplace.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Western Michigan University, and Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from Florida State University. After 4 years of living and consulting abroad in Australia, Jess brought her skills and experience back to the corporate sector in the US and is currently enjoying an Organizational Development role in a Fortune Global 100 company. You can contact her at [email protected].

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