Three Effective Reward Strategies for Intrinsic Motivation and Performance

Rewards can be powerful motivators. We’ve all seen people give an extra push or accomplish otherwise unpleasant tasks at the promise of a reward.

In the short term, rewards can often “get us the results.” But in the long term, rewards have serious downsides.

A series of classic studies demonstrated that rewarding people for tasks they were already motivated to do actually made them do those activities less (see The Center for Self-Determination Theory's Review). In other words, rewards can kill our motivation to accomplish tasks over the long term if used the wrong way.

So how can you use rewards in a way that maximizes the upsides and minimizes the downsides? There are three important methods to use rewards effectively in your organization or on your team.

Make Rewards Unexpected

It’s tempting to offer rewards ahead of time to get someone to complete a task. This is the classic “carrot” approach. However, this quickly leads to the reward becoming the reason to do the task, crushing our high-quality motivation and, in turn, lowering the quality of our work. It also serves as a signal to people—whether explicitly or implicitly—that the task isn’t important or valuable on its own. This shift to motivation for rewards makes it even less likely than before that the task will be done without more rewards in the future.

Instead, occasionally rewarding employees unexpectedly for a job well done can enhance the motivation that they already had for the task. In addition, making rewards unexpected will help you use the next techniques effectively.

Use Rewards to Communicate Appreciation

Rewards are particularly impactful when they communicate heartfelt appreciation for what a team member has accomplished. This includes genuine verbal rewards and acknowledgment.

When rewards are communicative of appreciatiothey are fulfilling and motivating to employees on their own, and help employees feel like a valued member of their team.

Use Rewards to Recognize Growth and Success

Effective rewards don’t simply acknowledge a task completed, but rather serve as feedback about employees’ success and development in their skills and abilities. When a team member takes on a new challenge or successfully demonstrates a new skill, rewards can be used to powerfully recognize that they have reached a new milestone in their development, and acknowledge the effort it took to get there.

In sum, rewards are most effective when they are used to convey appreciation and support your employees’ needs at work, instead of as carrots to entice the behaviors you want.

If you want to learn more effective strategies on how to best support your employees in their work, including a deeper dive into using rewards effectively on your team or in your organization, check out our online manager training course. The course covers everything from how to facilitate your employees’ intrinsic motivation and performance, to learning best practices for important topics such as goal setting, effective meetings, and managing burnout.

Learn more about our online training program:

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