Employee motivation employee engagement reward systems

Is the reward system your company has in place – the carrot – actually changing the behavior of your employees? You may be surprised to learn that while employees love their bonuses, it doesn’t necessarily change their behavior and incent them to do even more work.

The Non-Human Motivators

In previous posts in this series based on the Vital Smart’s Influencer Model, I focused on strategies that motivate and enable individuals to engage in your sustainability initiative. I also discussed how to leverage the social capital available to you in your organization and other stakeholder communities.

Now let’s turn our attention to the non-human factors that influence the way organizations and the individuals in them behave. This requires designing rewards that also demand accountability.

Rewarding the Right Behaviors

Getting back to bonus plans, is yours doing anything to change your behavior? Most of us would say no, that we would act the same way whether we got the bonus or not. Or even worse, your reward system may be undermining the behavior you want the most.

For instance, what if you are trying to build the value of a customer relationship while solving a customer’s problem — all in one call? Your standard is to measure your call center’s employees by how many calls they answered during a shift. What type of behavior to do you think is being encouraged? Easy question to answer: the number of calls and not the quality of the conversation.

This is one of the main faults of bonus programs. They don’t align with what we want people to really do, which is quality work. We design rewards systems to focus on results and not on behaviors. Doctors are paid for the tests they perform and not for keeping patients healthy. Coaches talk about teamwork but celebrate the “star” of the team.

Look at your reward systems that are tied to your sustainability efforts. Are they aimed at the vital behaviors that will create the greatest change? If not, you’re squandering resources that could be used much more effectively.

Reward What Matters to Your People

Vital Smarts contends that you should use rewards in moderation in any change effort and then they should only be symbolically significant. I’d take it one step further. Don’t rely on bonuses, gift cards or other forms of recognition. Instead, reward people with things that substantively matter to us as human beings.

I’m not saying traditional rewards don’t motivate us but they don’t motivate us as much as we think. In fact, many studies validate that we are rewarded with money up to a certain point. After that threshold is met, extra compensation doesn’t do a thing to make us behave in a particular way. In this entertaining video, Dan Pink, best-selling author about the changing world of work, highlights the three main sources of personal motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. As a sustainability leader, your initiatives will be more successful if you understand what is profoundly rewarding to human beings.


Most sustainability initiatives are comprised of ad hoc committees or volunteers. Members will meet and exceed your challenges if you allow them to be self-directed and have large amounts of autonomy without strict rules. Let them know what you want as the end result, and then let the team decide how and with whom they will achieve success. Take Dan Pink’s advice, and tell them, “You probably want to do something interesting; let me get out of your way.”


We enjoy doing what we’re good at. We like being a master of something, so much so, that we put in extra effort to hone our skills and challenge our abilities. A master card player doesn’t seek out the table she can beat; she seeks out the one she has yet to conquer. Her reward is becoming better than she is today.

Sustainability initiatives and projects naturally allow for personal mastery. First, sustainably initiatives are complex and challenging, requiring new ways of thinking to solve the business issues surrounding global climate change. Second, participating in these initiatives give members a chance to show off their stuff and to hone their abilities. Lastly, celebrate a participant’s mastery by telling everyone you know how awesome this individual is at a particulate set of skills. Let him or her be known throughout your organization as the go-to person for their individual capability.


Sustainability initiatives are engrained with purpose. As human beings, we like being connected to something bigger than ourselves. We like working in an organization that isn’t just in it for the profit. It’s rewarding to work with others to create a positive outcome in our larger community — our planet. Your sustainability programs and initiatives may be one of the distinctive options available in your organization to connect employees with purpose, mission and values. You can be pivotal in creating an environment where it is inspiring to work.

You want to design a model rewards program for your sustainability initiatives? Encourage and enable autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Find Out What Motivates

As you look to find the right mix of symbolically significant forms of encouragement, conduct mini-experiments to find what motivates the individuals participating in your teams. Does your company thrive on well-intentioned internal competitions? Do they value recognition in the stories told by senior executives? What has been successful in your organization?

Julie Honeywell is Vice President, Talent Management, at Paladino and Company.

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