In my job working with organizations and business I often hear about new initiatives designed to build employee engagement. Engaged employees, as the rationale goes, are more productive and loyal. That’s a good thing. The key of course is to figure out how to engage them.
Some companies try to be competitive with pay and benefits. Others design educational and professional development incentives. Some attempt to be Google, implementing organizational redesign with open workspaces, game rooms, and elaborate cafeterias.
And then there are those who use privileges to win over employees. That’s also effective. When done in the right spirit.
A colleague of mine shared the note that you can read in this blog. It was given to all the kids in his daughter’s class in preparation for the standardized tests that are given each Spring. The school was going to allow students to chew gum or Lifesavers during the test as a privilege, but first each student AND their parents had to sign a contract. The gum chewing right came with a laundry list of requirements and rules. What was designed to incentivize students was really no different than the standard set of rules they had to follow each day. When the privilege has caveats, it ceases to be a privilege.
The idea of motivating people hinges around the concept that people are satisfied when they get WHAT they need, WHEN they need it. Pay is only a part of it although to be fair, should be enough. Privileges, like casual dress and bring-your-dog-to-work day should be those little surprises that dazzle and provide a spike in productivity. But those privileges lose their luster when accompanies by a bunch of rules. Granted, standards are important. Provocative or offensive clothing can be a liability and nobody wants to step in dog crap when walking to the copier. The rules are fine if the spirit of the privilege is not lost.
Which brings us to the gum-chewing contract. With the fear of punishment high, combined with the added stress of standardized testing, I’m thinking students enter the test with lower morale than if gum was just outlawed. The incentives just won’t incentivize.
So if your organization want to use incentives, keep the following in mind:
- Make the incentives special and limited in time. Getting people accustomed to the incentive leads to it being seen as a right. Now you’re stuck leaving it in place for good.
- Make the incentive something that the employee would want, not necessarily what you would want. While I would love a new firearm as a gift, I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t see it as an appropriate anniversary gift.
- Make the incentive as rule-free as possible. When privileges come with a host of regulations and rules, they just aren’t as special.
- Make the incentive as condition-free as possible. My ex’s father paid to have the kitchen in her condo refurbished. His condition was that she had to get rid of her pets and her son couldn’t fry doughnuts in the kitchen. I’m not sure a gift should have that many conditions.
All of us love to give and get privileges. Before giving them, take a moment to run through the checklist. You don’t want your well-intentioned gift to have a negative impact.