How to use REWARDS to bring out the best in people

In last week’s Tuesday Tip, I said, “When all is said and done, about two-thirds of the motivational research can be summarized in two principles:

  • That which gets inspected gets done, and
  • That which gets rewarded gets done.”

And I addressed the first principle, the ACCOUNTABILITY principle, in last week’s issue. But how can you use REWARDS to bring out the best in people?

► 1. Recognize the power of rewards and recognition.


In fact, there are few things on earth that are more motivating than recognizing and rewarding behavior.

One teacher’s assignment proved that. A New York teacher, Helice Bridges, decided to honor each of her seniors in high school by telling them the difference each of them had made.

She called each student to the front of the class and told each of them how they had made a difference to her and the class. Then she presented each of them with a blue ribbon, imprinted with gold letters, which read, “Who I Am Makes a Difference.”

Afterwards, the teacher decided to do a class project to see what kind of impact recognition would have on the community. She gave each of the students three more blue ribbons and instructed them to go out and spread this acknowledgment ceremony. Then they were to follow up on the results, see who honored whom, and report back to the class in about a week.

One of the boys in the class went to a junior executive in a nearby company and honored him for helping him with his career planning. He gave him a blue ribbon and put it on his shirt.

Then he gave him two extra ribbons and said, “We’re doing a class project on recognition and we’d like you to go out, find somebody to honor, and give them a blue ribbon. Give them the extra blue ribbon so they can acknowledge a third person to keep this acknowledgment ceremony going. Then please report back to me and tell me what happened.”

Later that day, the junior executive went in to see his boss, who was known for being a grouchy fellow. He sat his boss down and he told him that he deeply admired him for being a creative genius.

The boss seemed very surprised. The junior executive asked him if he would accept the gift of the blue ribbon. And would he give him permission to put it on him?

His surprised boss said, “Well, sure.” The junior executive took the blue ribbon and placed it right on his boss’s jacket, above his heart. As he gave him the last extra ribbon, he said, “Would you take this extra ribbon and pass it on by honoring somebody else. The young boy who first gave me the ribbons is doing a project in school and we want to keep this recognition ceremony going and find out how it affects people.”

That night, the boss came home to his 14-year-old son and sat him down. He said, “The most incredible thing happened to me today. I was in my office and one of the junior executives came in and told me he admired me and gave me a blue ribbon for being a creative genius. Imagine! He thinks I’m a creative genius! Then he put this blue ribbon that says, ‘Who I Am Makes a Difference,’ on my jacket above my heart. He gave me an extra ribbon and asked me to find somebody else to honor.”

The boss/father continued: “As I was driving home tonight, I started thinking about whom I would honor with this ribbon and I thought about you. I want to honor you. My days are really hectic and when I come home I don’t pay a lot of attention to you.”

“Sometimes I scream at you for not getting good enough grades in school and for your bedroom being a mess. But somehow tonight, I just wanted to sit here and, well, just let you know that you do make a difference to me. Besides your mother, you are the most important person in my life. You’re a great kid and I love you!”

The startled boy started to sob and sob and he couldn’t stop crying. His whole body shook. He looked up at this father and said through his tears, “Dad, earlier tonight I sat in my room and wrote a letter to you and Mom, explaining why I had killed myself and I asked you to forgive me. I was going to commit suicide tonight after you were asleep. I just didn’t think that you cared at all. The letter is upstairs. I don’t think I need it after all.” His father walked upstairs and found a heartfelt letter full of anguish and pain.

The boss went back to work a changed man. He was no longer a grouch and he made sure to let all of his employees know that they make a difference. The junior executive helped several other young people with career planning. And the young boy and his classmates learned a valuable lesson.

Yes, recognition and rewards work. They’re very motivating.

So I ask you …

► 2. Why don’t managers give out more recognition?


Why does the number one job complaint continue to be “You can do a hundred things right and not hear a darn thing about it?” I think there are two reasons.

First, some managers are uncomfortable with praising. They don’t know how to do it. After all, they were trained to be problem spotters and problem solvers instead of recognition givers. So when they see good behavior, they tend to “leave well enough alone.” They figure the employee should know that “no news is good news.”

Second, some managers have had bad luck using rewards in the past. They inadvertently rewarded behaviors that actually hurt the company.

For instance, a manufacturing company rewarded maintenance mechanics for “wrench time” — the amount of time spent making repairs. Unfortunately, the reward inadvertently punished mechanics for time spent analyzing problems and performing preventive maintenance.

A pizza delivery company focused its reward system on the on-time performance of its drivers. The unexpected side effect, however, was the encouragement of reckless driving.

Obviously you’ve got to know the right way to give out rewards and recognition if you want to bring out the best in others. That’s why so many organizations ask me to deliver my keynote and/or program on 4C Leadership: Communication, Cooperation, Change, and Commitment.

Check it out and give me a call if you’re interested in having that kind of powerful program at your next meeting.

But let me give you one final tip to get you started. When it comes to reward and recognition, both positive and negative feedback can be useful. Employees have to know the good as well as the bad. Just …

► 3. Tip the balance of your feedback toward the positive.


Take a lesson from the group of researchers who videotaped two teams of bowlers during a match. They edited out the mistakes made by members of the first team and showed the tape to them. During the review, the researchers focused only on the strengths of the players and everything they had done right.

The second team was also shown a tape. But their video contained only the mistakes that had been made by their members. They were offered suggestions on how to improve their techniques.

After receiving the feedback, both teams showed signs of improvement. Surprisingly, the group that received the positive feedback improved 100 percent more than the other team.

So the next time you’re giving feedback to someone — whether as a parent, manager, or friend — remember that building on the positive aspects of people’s actions or behavior reaps the best results.