Three Lessons for Meaningful Performance Management Incentives

We’re big fans of performance management. We know that for people to achieve their best, they need clear definitions of excellence, resources and tools to achieve that benchmark, and frequent, action-oriented feedback that drives their development. Too often, however, organizations don’t know how to link performance management efforts with valuable incentives for their talent.

Before we dig in, let’s get one thing out of the way: incentives in the workplace are not inherently good or bad. Done well, incentives can be a powerful tool for motivation, recognition and reward. Done poorly, incentives can lead people to feel controlled or set up for failure.

Incentives come in all shapes and sizes but most fit within one of the five Rs:

  • Rewards: salary, incentives, bonuses, benefits
  • Responsibilities: variety, autonomy, challenge, promotions, learning
  • Relationships: coworkers, supervisors, clients, and customers
  • Reputations: image, respect, appreciation, feedback
  • Rest & Relation: hours, scheduling, flexible, travel, location

So what now? Maybe you want to give a bonus to high-performers, grant newcomers more autonomy or show appreciation to employees who routinely go above and beyond. In any situation, here are three recommendations to help you build a foundation for offering incentives:

  1. Set achievable, meaningful, and controllable benchmarks for employees. Ambitious goals are great but they should not be impossible to reach. Similarly, desired outcomes must matter to the person and organization. If mission driven, make clear the connection between the individual’s impact and how it helps the the organization get closer to their vision. It may seem obvious, but people also have to know that what they will be measured against can be reached by the levers within their control. We would never evaluate a bank teller by the number of light bulbs that need to be changed monthly, so test your goals to ensure a direct line back to employee actions and responsibilities.
  2. Know what people want. A huge problem is that organizations generally don’t know what their people want. For example, leaders may assume everyone is motivated by the same things or rely too heavily on what has historically been motivating. Particularly in large or longstanding organizations, there is too much application of the golden rule (treat others as you want to be treated) by decision-makers and not enough of the platinum rule (treat others as they want to be treated). There’s no secret to fixing this problem; you need to do your research (e.g., ask employees, read research on generational shifts, talk to industry leaders) and pilot before full-scale launch. The best approaches customize incentives for specific groups or individuals.  
  3. Keep support and growth at the center. Earning an incentive should not be the end of the journey for your employees. Milestones are important, but should always be coupled with a “what’s next?” conversation so that people feel you are genuinely invested in their growth and development (which we hope you are!) and can tangibly see the road ahead. If one does not yet exist, take the opportunity to co-create. A common pitfall is focusing too much on monetary or extrinsic rewards, sometimes to the detriment of strong intrinsic motivators. Focusing on continual improvement and long-term development will help mitigate this risk.  

How have you effectively implemented incentives? What’s been the most interesting outcome? Sound off in the comments below!

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