How to determine what rewards matter to employees


In the field of enterprise innovation, rewards programs are a relatively common component. This is a response to the fact that participating in innovation often comes on top of an employee’s existing duties. Organizations want the cognitive diversity, they want novel ways of addressing needs, but they also need to satisfy customers and keep the lights on. Rewards programs are put in place to provide additional value from participating in the innovation efforts (on top of the intrinsic motivation to help solve a challenge).

Rewards programs have a well-earned bad reputation for being de-motivators. Simplistic approaches – cash, gift cards, merchandise – can inadvertently wreck employees’ motivations to participate. When done poorly, they become what Daniel Pink described as de-motivators. Which then opens the question…how to do rewards “right”?

I think what matters is the type of work. Even Pink talks about how his research about motivation relates to what he terms “creative tasks”. I want to pick that up and propose the following matrix as a way to think about what rewards matter to what types of employees:

In this matrix, two attributes are keys to understanding what types of rewards would appeal to employees. Ambition level speaks to how much responsibility the person desires to have. And how much impact on the organization’s outcomes the want wants. Cognitive complexity includes what Pink calls “creative tasks”. Work that is more cognitively complex will have a high level of uncertainty, and require learning, trial-and-error and an iterative flow. To help make these characterizations of work more tangible, I’ve added some example occupations for each square in the matrix.

Together, cognitive complexity and level of ambition determine what rewards would hold appeal. If you like tasks that follow well-known rules, rewards that allow you to gain new knowledge are less interesting. If your objective is a paycheck and a great life outside of work, opportunities to meet with the CEO hold little appeal. If one’s interests run toward ways to increase career options and take on greater responsibilities, a $25 Amazon gift card offers little motivation.

I just wrote more about this in my post, Keys to success with an innovation reward program. There, I’ve described a spectrum of rewards that run from cash/merchandise through innovation program options. I map the matrix to those, and provide specific examples where rewards were done wrongly. Learn from those mistakes.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

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About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

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