Pump New Life Into Your Incentives

By Malcolm Fleschner

Like a fine wine, a great reward and recognition program should improve with time. Lesser programs, however, are more like the cheap stuff and soon begin to turn sour and lose participants’ interest. So says Bob Nelson, the uncrowned king of the recognition industry and author of the bestselling 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, 2005). He identifies three key factors that indicate a program may already be headed south.

1. The thrill is gone. You’ll know the excitement has gone when employees stop talking about a program and its prizes, honorees and achievements. Part of the purpose of an incentive program is to keep a buzz going.

2. The response is include me out. If fewer people, including managers, participate in a program each time it runs you know people are losing interest and changes are in order.

3. There should be no butts about it. When people joke about or make fun of a program you know it has ceased to be a source of pride. Incentives work when they’re fun, not when they’re the butt of cynical jokes.

So how do you go about reinvigorating an incentive program that’s lost its luster? The first thing Nelson suggests you do is gather some data to determine what’s worth keeping and what needs to be scrapped. “You can obtain this information from a simple employee survey, a focus group discussion of the targeted employee population or even through individual input,” he explains. “This data then becomes the starting point for program revisions. Has the program merchandise lost its appeal? Would participants like a broader selection or more items they can share with their family? Does it take too long to earn points for the program incentives? Make the changes that make the most sense.”

Having reenergized the program, it’s time to mix things up a bit, Nelson says. Look for ways to keep things fresh and effective. “Change how you communicate about the program,” he says, “including the specific incentives offered, the top managers who play a role in supporting the program and so forth. Have program surprises, such as something extra for the 500th person honored or a department award when everyone in a single department has received an award. Or in the midst of the program, take the opportunity to reward the managers who take the time to recognize others and consistently continue to use the program.”

Nelson acknowledges that no incentive program is going to last forever, no matter how well it’s run. But he does mention one key ingredient for ensuring that a program lives out its natural lifespan: upper-level management support. “This does not mean having letters about the program written over a top manager’s signature or having top managers at recognition events,” he adds. “Top managers must use the program on a daily basis to show they really believe in it. They need to point out recognition opportunities for other managers to consider and encourage those managers to use available recognition programs.”

For more information, visit Bob Nelson online at www.nelson-motivation.com.