Peter Reilly: Do motivation plans and recognition schemes really drive staff productivity?

This is a deceptively straightforward question with an unhelpful answer: it depends. The devil is really in the detail: what are motivation plans and recognition schemes and how do they relate to productivity?

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Crudely, we can divide plans and schemes into those that offer financial rewards to drive productivity and those that involve some form of non-financial recognition.

The offer of a payment in return for individual contribution works best where there is a simple relationship between effort and reward. The line of sight is clear: if I do X, I will receive Y. Such schemes depend for their success on the unambiguous achievement of the goal.

The measurement of results is straightforward: the reward being of value to the individual and commensurate with the effort to achieve the goal.

Some jobs lend themselves to this sort of arrangement, but schemes fail where objectives are complex and their attainment a matter of debate. Also, if the employee derives satisfaction from the content of the job more than the employment terms and conditions, then financial reward will also struggle to succeed (or at least at the level of the money likely to be offered).

Non-financial recognition tries to get at the intrinsic elements of work: satisfaction with the work, pride in the organisational purpose, and so on. Through simple forms of acknowledgement (from thank-yous to flowers), it can reinforce positive feelings towards job and employer. Again, schemes can be more complicated in assessing contribution and in the reward offered, for example the collection of points based on desirable behaviours.

However, whatever the type of programme, it can be vulnerable to gaming, where employees manipulate the rules to their advantage, certainly when the reward is attractive. Yet the longer the scheme is in place, the weaker its motivational powers. It will get taken for granted, especially if payouts are the norm rather than the exception.

So to be motivational, schemes need to be carefully designed to fit the type of work and type of employee. This might mean different schemes for different groups. This is an approach organisations might be reluctant to embrace, but in reward, one size rarely fits all.