SUPPOSE YOU GAVE A PARTY AND nobody came? That's more or less what happened to one software company when its manager of recognition programs decided to reward its engineers for a new, highly successful system they had developed.



“She created ‘Celebrate Engineers Day,’” recalls Joseph Mancusi, president of the Center for Organizational Intelligence, Sterling, Va. “She rented a fancy riverboat and set up a mock gambling parlor in the main hall. There was also a huge gallery of games, with prizes and drawings galore, plus an elaborate buffet. It was colorful, festive and fun.”

It was also a bust.

Nearly half the company's engineers didn't show up, and those who came didn't stay long. It just wasn't their thing. “Engineers are not like salespeople, who love to schmooze and enjoy being rewarded in public,” says Mancusi. “Their mindset is more like, ‘Give me the money and leave me alone.’”

The most honest attempt to reward an employee can misfire if a manager doesn't take into account that individual's personality. “Reward programs fail because managers follow the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” says Mancusi. In other words, managers assume that their workers want to be rewarded the same way managers want to be rewarded.

That's not always true.

“The Golden Rule is a self-centered rule,” says Tony Alessandra, the La Jolla, Calif.-based speaker and author of The Platinum Rule. “It's like a salesman who assumes his product is right for his prospect without considering the prospect's needs.”

Tailoring rewards to employees' personalities is hardly new. In the 1970s, Alessandra came up with a behavior classification system based on four personality types. The first group, Directors, are goal-oriented, take-charge individuals who tend to be motivated by money or anything that shows they're winners, such as a car. The second group, Socializers, are “more open and more relationship-oriented,” he says, and they like status symbols — tangible evidence of their accomplishments, such as a trophy. Thinkers, the third group, are “analytical, systematic people who enjoy problem-solving and appreciate learning activities.” They would be motivated by an educational trip, for example. Finally, Relaters, are those who most value their personal relationships. For them, a perfect motivating gift might be a trip with their family, time off, or a framed photo of their team.

Unfortunately, too few companies use these determinants to customize recognition and rewards, according to Allesandra and other experts.

“Most companies take the easy way out in rewarding their employees,” says Jim Cathcart, author of The Acorn Principle. “Instead of considering people's differences and rewarding them accordingly, they look for blanket solutions because they'd rather not work that hard.”

Value Judgement

Cathcart contends that it is vital to understand someone's value system to know what drives that person. He has identified seven “natural values”: sensuality, empathy, wealth, power, aesthetics, commitment and knowledge.

“If I know someone's top value is knowledge and his last value is power, I'm not going to give him a corner office or a title as a reward. I'm going to give him an opportunity to learn or to use his knowledge — by attending a research seminar, taking a course or teaching other employees.”

Cathcart also refers to peoples' work “velocity.” Low-velocity people follow the philosophy that play should be work and work, play — they are motivated by immediate needs or the needs of others. High-velocity people enjoy work as long as it moves them toward their goals — they are self-motivated. And a moderate velocity person enjoys a balance between work and play.

Dee Hansford, president of Dee Hansford Consulting (Winter Garden, Fla.), a company that creates recognition programs, gives an example of a client who has done this successfully. “She asks questions. ‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘What was fun?’ And she listens to the answers,” says Hansford. “She keeps a file of things employees do well, and she will match work strengths and personalities.”

Hansford's client hosted an off-site event to celebrate when the group met all its deliverables. Among the team members was a woman who loved to spend weekends baking cookies with her daughter. “She gave her a cookie platter, a decorating kit and a card with specific messages about her contributions, as well as comments about how she admired the woman's parenting skills,” says Hansford. “All her messages are about her employees, their families and what they value.”

There's always a chance that you can de-motivate an employee by being completely out of touch with what matters to them. This was the case with another of Hansford's clients, whom she describes as “a high-powered financial planner — a real type-A personality.”

“She was aggravated because she'd rewarded her administrative assistant with an expensive gift certificate for a massage at a high-end spa,” she recalls. “Three months had passed, and the assistant hadn't used it. I asked her why she'd given the woman a massage. ‘Who wouldn't love a massage?’ she said. ‘Well, you may value it,’ I replied, ‘but you need to find out if your assistant does.’”

A few days later, her client told her she had been right. Not only did this woman feel uncomfortable getting a massage, she felt guilty about having a pricey massage alone rather than doing something with her family. What she wanted more than anything was some time off with her children.

Janelle Brittain, head of the Dynamic Performance Institute in Chicago, sees people as being motivated by six things: inclusion, recognition, rewards, accomplishment, altruism and control. “Most people are more a mix of several types,” she says.

The exception is control — over your workload, your schedule, work/life balance — which, she says, can be more powerful than money. “Plenty of people would give up a raise or promotion to have more control over their job.”

For example, one of Brittain's clients, a technical consulting firm, wanted a way to induce its consultants to stay with the company. “When we analyzed what was important to them, we discovered that a high percentage wanted more flexibility and control over their schedules. So we allowed them to adopt flex time, as long as they got their work done.”

Different Strokes

It's even possible to customize — somewhat — rewards that companies give out on a large-scale basis. Sally McCarthy, recognition and rewards manager at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., categorizes employees by their job titles. “My team supports about 10,000 people, and I segment them in three ways. One group is our sales force. The second group, our operations people, is those in the back office who fulfill and service our loans. Third is our project managers, the enablers.”

She finds out what motivates them in a completely unscientific way: listening. “We go out to the sites and offices to do ‘associate listening,’” she says. “We listen to management, too, because associates often discuss their motivators with their managers.” She also conducts associate focus groups on the phone. “We ask them very open-ended questions: ‘What makes you come to work every day?’ ‘Why do you stay at Bank of America?’”

After doing focus groups for the past three years, she can generalize a bit. “Recognition from management and peers is probably the top motivator,” she says. “Time off is also very motivating. Gift certificates are big for our operations people. Our project managers respond to certificates and recognition from senior executives.”

Although the technique works for some managers, it's not enough to make decisions based solely on the type of work people do, without factoring in behavioral differences.

One long-standing way to differentiate personalities is the introvert-extrovert divide. “Introverts should be rewarded differently than extroverts,” says Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation, San Diego. “If someone is shy, the last thing you want to do is put him or her in a position of public praise.” He recalls a company that was giving one worker a plaque for perfect attendance. “He was so petrified he'd have to speak, he called in sick.”


Margery Stein is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. She is also a contributing editor to Corporate Meetings & Incentives magazine.


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