A Workplace Truism to Remember: You Get What You Reward

One HR blogger I enjoy reading is Mike Haberman. He recently boiled down the entire discussion of employee rewards to this salient point:

The whole concept of reward is to perpetuate behaviors that are desirable to the organization. This is the whole concept of motivation in all its numerous guises. The most recent version is Pink’s Motivation 2.0. Regardless of how you dress it up, behavior occurs because it is rewarded, whether it is some external reward or some internal reward. The bottom line is you get what you reward.”

In just four sentences, Mike simplifies what many try to make so complicated – you do things you get rewarded for.

Not a grab for more rewards

Please note, those of you who immediately thought of Gen Y/Millennials and their (false) reputation for wanting recognition and rewards at every turn, this isn’t a grab for more rewards. Indeed, Mike makes that clear. These rewards can be intrinsic as well as extrinsic.

  • You do things because you reward yourself. – This is the mark of truly intrinsic rewards. You’re self-motivated to achieve whatever task you have set before you, whether it’s a work related task or something personal like losing weight or exercising more. You engage in the activity and give it your best because of the personal reward you will give yourself in the form of self-satisfaction at a job well done.
  • You do things because others reward you. – This sounds harsh, but it really isn’t. We all do things because we want others to notice us, see our good work praise us for it. The “reward” can be in the form of simple acknowledgement and recognition of your achievement or it can be tangible in many different forms. The point is, for extrinsic rewards of this stripe, you’re likely giving it your all for the accolades you anticipate from others.

A powerful way to communicate to employees

We need to stop thinking of extrinsic rewards in negative terms. Strategic employee recognition and rewards are largely extrinsic, but designed to reinforce the positive behaviors and outcomes you’ve codified in your company’s core values and strategic objectives.

When giving extrinsic praise, recognition and – yes – rewards, you’re powerfully communicating to employees, “What you just did there – and how you did it – that was great! Keep doing more of that!”

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And that’s a good thing.

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is senior vice president of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, where he leads the company’s consulting and analytics divisions. His writing is regularly featured across major HR publications, including HR Magazine, Human Resource Executive, HR Zone, and Workspan.