Brett Jarman

Apr 26, 2021

5 min read

Relinquish The Magical Carrot

Magician conjuring carrots for employee rewards — to represent the CEO in the story deciding on what the carrots look like as rewards for employees
Magician conjuring carrots for employee rewards

Employees in groups of 2’s and 3’s slowly filter into the communal space. Talk of work, and inside jokes, quickly subside as they enter.

The gathering wait patiently for the CEO to give the organisation’s traditional annual performance presentation. Hushed words are exchanged amongst staff. Some try to guess which direction the bars on the graphs will go. Others ponder whether they have collectively done enough to warrant any kind of reward.

The answers remain a closely guarded secret, known only by a select few.

That is, until the lights are dimmed and the CEO opens the presentation with carefully chosen phrases — a challenging year; unpredictable macro-economic forces; unavoidable and difficult decisions.

Those gathered have heard it all before. The tension in the room rises. Glancing at one another, the hive mind wonders what doom may befall them.

The CEO spends the next 10 minutes reiterating the organisation’s five year vision, strategy and roadmap. Their robustness is empathised, in a vain attempt to reassure the masses that all is well. But no one is really listening. Everyone in the room waits with bated breath for the slide. The only one that really matters.

As if willed into existence by the crowd, it suddenly appears. Eyes dart from left to right, hastily interpreting every small detail the chart has to offer, desperate to unlock it’s mysteries.

The bar furthest to the right sits above the line. But only just. The sound of a few dozen humans exhaling fills the rooms. Shoulders drop. A small profit.

After a brief explanation, the slides are moved on.

The next header reads ‘REWARD’.

Emotion in room morphs from nervousness to quiet excitement. Everyone hopes for something slightly different. Those struggling to pay bills secretly wish for a bonus on their next wage slip. Others cross their fingers for much needed extra time off to care for loved ones.

A PA suddenly strides to the CEO, paper in hand. One rapid handover later, the PA retreats back sheepishly to the safety of their colleagues. Holding the small tickets up proudly, the CEO announces that everyone in the organisation will receive a £10 voucher as thanks for their hard work.

Like a synchronising orchestra, the demeanor of those in the room changed almost immediately. Having digested the value of this reward and finding it difficult to not make their frustration and disappointment obvious, many eyes start looking for an escape route.

To their relief, their wish for a quick getaway is granted soon after.

And the conversations begin as soon as they’re out of earshot of the CEO. Whilst the words used may be different, many share the same question.

Do they really care about us?

Whilst the story is fictional, it’s likely that some aspect may resonate with you. There is plenty of elements to the story that could be picked apart and critiqued, but the one I wanted to focus on was recognition and reward.

You may have asked that very question at the end after being given some sort of recognition or reward (or none at all). Whilst many organisations would of course respond yes, they do care, the reality doesn’t always marry up.

It’s important to note that recognition and reward comes in many forms.

A simple thank you.

Being given the opportunity to lead on a high profile project.

A monetary bonus at the end of the year.

An organisation may argue that blanket offering just one of these should be sufficient to make everyone feel acknowledged and cared about. And that recipients should be grateful for anything they get.

However, I often reiterate the point that all humans are unique. We are all motivated by different things. We all have varying needs, wants and priorities at any given time. We all perceive the world in our own ways.

In the story, a £10 voucher is provided to all employees in recognition of their hard work. There could be individuals who would not expect anything from their employer, and therefore are incredibly thankful for the reward. Others may appreciate the gesture, but secretly wish it could have been something else. Some may consider it to be pitiful and an insult to their efforts.

You can’t please everyone, all the time of course…

Or can you?

Consider this — who normally decides how to reward staff? The Directors? HR? Finance?

When the number of employees starts to get into mid range double figures, how could the board, or any single department, really know their colleagues intimately enough to decide what reward would have the desired impact?

And is one dose of recognition administered once a year really sufficient to keep someone engaged, motivated and feel cared about for another 364 days?

It’s highly unlikely.

So here is an alternative, beautifully illustrated by Tanmay Vora for his blog QAspire:

For me, the key element from this sketch is introducing a reward system that is personalised to each individual, therefore incorporating their holistic needs and situation, and intrinsic motivators.

And in my mind, the only way to achieve this is to devolve the system. Take the responsibility for deciding what constitutes a reward out of the hands of a single department and give it to the people.

Offer each individual a ‘budget’, or better yet, get organisation-wide consensus on what % of the profit made will go towards rewards and allow people to spend it how they wish.

Buy an extra days leave? Sure, why not.

Opt for additional pay that month (or spread out over the year)? Go for it.

Donate half to charity and use the other half to buy a gift for a colleague who massively helped you? Good for you.

What about a group of cross-department individuals agreeing to pool their budgets so they can all go on a more intensive course that provides shared benefits? Nice one!

As mentioned earlier, it’s not all about the money.

How about taking inspiration from Agile retrospect events and giving everyone the opportunity to provide regular feedback to their peers on a bi-weekly basis;

Maybe a static, virtual ‘wall of gratitude’ for messages of thanks to be given;

Or for each project initiated, allow those who aren’t on the list of essential stakeholders the opportunity to ‘apply’ to be part of the team for their own learning and development.

There are plenty of options and digital tools that can enable a new approach to rewards. It’s all just about those who hold all the power relinquishing control and trusting that humans in the organisation know what carrot will motivate and benefit them.