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Q and A With Bob Nelson

January 8, 2001
Related Topics: Recognition, Featured Article
Bob Nelson answered questions posted by Workforce members for several months in 2000. Here are his answers:

The ultimate answer should come fromthem since motivation is personal and varies widely from person to person.Pull them into the discussion, for example, by having everyone name twothings that motivate them.

We did this method in a staffmeeting recently and when one person said, "I can't think ofanything," everyone else started to name things on her list. "Whatabout time with your kids?" "You like your car looking nice,"etc. Eventually she had the longest list of “motivators” out ofeverybody else.

You can also do this discreetly withindividuals: "Dave, I know you don't like public praise, but you did agreat job on that last project and I'd really like to do something to showyou I appreciate it. Think about it and let me know what you'd findspecial."

You can move quickly beyondcertificates and trinkets and consider special assignments such as time off,a learning opportunity and so forth.

One other thought. I know a companywhere the manager asked the group if they'd like more recognition and one ofthe employees said, "Why don't we share the responsibility and eachweek a different employee will be responsible for picking who has performedwell and in some way celebrate that performance?" No one laughed at theidea since they too would have to come up with something. 


Do not worry about doing too much recognition! Mostemployees never see any recognition, so it is unlikely that you would bedoing too much. The formal recognition you described looks like it onlyhappens once a year! Recognition needs to be almost a daily occurrence inorder for it to become a part of your culture. 

Gallop used a survey question that asked, "In the lastfive days have you been recognized in your job?" If employees answered"yes" they can predict levels of employee satisfaction andproductivity. If you keep the recognition relevant to the things you say areimportant such as your stated goals or company values, you really don't needto worry about going overboard. 

Most important are the things done on a daily basis that anemployee holds in high esteem. Managers should focus in their sphere ofinfluence to maximize your efforts. 


A great question! Most companies shyaway from measuring performance when it is difficult. Instead of trying todetermine the impact of a position, they fall victim to measuring thingsthat are easy to track, such as number of forms completed, number of phonescalls, percentage of the budget spent, etc. 

Instead try to step back from thequestion and ask, "If someone was an outstanding (fill in the blank),what would that look like?" Then start to list the types of observablebehaviors you would see. Compare that to someone that was only average inthat job and you will begin to notice differences. Try to have thoseindividuals that actually do the job come up with the standards since theyknow it best! 


I've seen companies that use thisstatistic in their budget and have experienced variations depending upon howyou define "formal" and "informal." I've worked incompanies that used $7 per person per month for a "morale fund" orhad a general pool to cover the costs of spontaneous celebrations. I believeDisney uses $2 per person per year to create a budget for informal awards. 

Tobe honest, you can do a lot of informal recognition with little or nobudget. In fact, by being creative you can have the greatest impact withoutspending a dime by doing things that get people excited. Among the things todo are having an employee's car washed by an executive of their choice,naming a day after an employee, creating passes for employees to bring theirpet to work, or by creating a pass-around award and a "wall offame." 

Sometimesit's the unique idea that has the greatest impact. 


The only way to start a program isone step at a time. I recommend starting small and building on yoursuccesses instead of trying to completely revamp your culture overnight. 

Firstly, a drastic approach wouldlikely fail. Secondly, when it does, it is likely people and top managementwill say, "I didn't think that touchy-feely stuff would work." Youmay end up further entrenched in how you have always done things. 

A simple approach is to list thethings you currently do to recognize employees - years of service awards,Christmas party, whatever. Asking employees how important those things areto him or her is a starting point along with asking what types ofrecognition he or she might like. You will increase your chances of being onthe mark when you use ideas your employees develop. 

P.S. Do not forget to create a role for upper management in therecognition activities! They will be inclined to try new things andappreciate the importance of the activity if they have a successfulexperience. 


We all should have such problems!The only thing you can do is to get them involved in helping their stock tobe worth more. Ask them what they would like to have a positive impact onthe organization and then work hard to give them that opportunity. 


Every work environment will have itsnuances as to what works best, but the majority of effective recognitionactivities cross industry lines. AlliedSignal Industrial Fibers in Moncure,N.C. uses "Coach's Awards" - the posting of certificates for doinga good job. Employees who receive a certificate are entered into a monthlydrawing for one day off with pay. 

The same plant allows any employeeto give a public praise to another employee in their morning plant-widemeeting, which they have found to be very motivating. The ideas, activitiesand programs are unlimited and I would recommend you take a look at my book,“1001Ways to Reward Employees” for some 2,400 more examples. 


Oh, yeah. How about a trip? A bedand breakfast weekend with their spouse? A department celebration? Lunchwith the president? An experience of their choice? One choice out of all theabove? The Office of Personnel Management in D.C. had a 20-year employeethat they wanted to honor and asked her what she would like. Her answer: Anelephant ride! They arranged it with the nearby zoo, took photos and she hadthe time or her life! 


"Most targets can only bemeasured once a year..." I do not agree with this belief. If bonusesare calculated quarterly based on sales results, that is a form ofmeasurement. What are the milestones or supporting activities that lead tosuccessful sales and other desired behavior or performance? 

Have your employees come up with alist of relevant performance? If so, prioritize that list and have the topfew serve as general standards. You can also quantify intangible measures,such as helpfulness, teamwork, etc. 

As to how "performancerecognition can best be linked to flexible payment," some companies dothis via a flexible compensation program through which individual objectivesand responsibilities each have a targeted range of financial incentive.Another way is to divide financial incentives according to success ofindividuals, groups and company objectives, and over time have an increasingpercentage of one's base pay be flexible. Base the performance on what youearn plus 5 percent more each year. 


My bias is to start small and buildfrom there, or "unfold" as you put it. This allows you to getgoing and build on what is currently successful, learning and experimentingalong the way. 

Regarding your related question: Howdo you sell a recognition program? 

There are different ways of doingthis in that people are persuaded differently. In a hospital setting, youcan appeal to the intellectual side of upper management and doctors viaproviding them research and well-supported articles on the topic. You canappeal to a competitive need by finding out what other hospitals are doing,a best practices approach. 

You can appeal to the humanisticside of care-giving, that is, most people that work in a hospital tend tohave entered the field to help others - we need to be sure that our workenvironment reflects this purpose of being a helping, care-givingorganization. You can gather your own data from employees that show highneed links to turnover, morale issues, stress and so forth. 

Finally, you can simply do a fieldtest or prototype in one department to see the effects of providing recognition activities, celebrations, tools, etc. Thisincludes the impact on management and employees and their morale, ability toprovide service, or whichever elements are of greatest importance to you. Ifthe program is successful, roll it out to the entire hospital. If not, seewhat you can learn from the experience and try again. 


I have written several articles thatfocus on this, one of which uses Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of evaluation oftraining. Subjective feelings, a "happiness evaluation" on toachieved results, is the best place to start. For example, what performanceor behavior do we hope to achieve from our recognition program? Pleasecontact my office for a copy at 800/575.5521. 


I'm afraid you have selected a verysensitive and politically incorrect topic for your research! I have writtenon how motivational needs of men and women differ, as does their skill inusing recognition (see Bob Nelson's Rewarding Employees newsletter, callNelson Motivation Inc. for a copy of the issue that contains this column:800/575.5521), but at some risk of stereotyping and gross generalization! 

Ultimately, I think you'll find thatrecognition, rewards and incentives need to be focused on performance in anyorganization. Focusing incentives on other areas runs the risk of havingperformance become secondary and places the organization on a slippery slopeto being out of business altogether. 


Great question! It sounds like youhave a good program that just needs to be tweaked. Remind everyone of theoriginal purpose of the program and perhaps put forth examples that help toexplain the original intent. As is, "making coffee" and"always being friendly" might very well be legitimate recognitionitems in lieu of defined criteria. 

For example, I can think of timeswhen someone else who was upbeat helped me at a time when I was not. Who’sto say that isn't legitimate if it got me back into my work and out of afunk?! 

Alternatively, you might NOT set amore formal criteria, but simply clarify that the purpose of the program isto recognize "above and beyond" behavior that was exceptional -not day-to-day activities and job responsibilities. People will get themessage and be a bit more selective. 

Yet another option is to add ascreening process, by which vague or everyday activities are kicked out ofthe program. Lots of choices! Good luck with it. 


Objectives are important because ifyou are not clear about what performance you want to achieve, you are likelyto get random performance and random results. Goal setting is a motivatorand builds commitment because it involves those you are trying to motivate. 

Measurement is critical in knowingif you are on track in reaching your goals and hence, when to recognize orreward the desired performance. In fact, there's a saying that goes "Ifyou can't measure it, you can't manage it." 

Measurement can also be verymotivating and in and of itself impact performance. Imagine getting excitedabout any sport there were no scores! 


Yes. Motivation does not have tostart with money (not that money isn't important). I've seen cases wheremanagers led with the "softer" approach of inspiring performanceand, once there, were able to be more financially successful and share thewealth with those that helped to make the success possible. 

I've seen other work environmentswhere employees were not well paid, but enjoyed working there and werehappy. For example, look at any volunteer organization. They do not have payrates, yet many people are pleased just to work for the cause. 

Alfie Kohn's book is provocative,although misguided. Not all rewards are short-term and manipulative, as hewould have one believe. If you start with what is important to theindividual and help that person move toward goals, then you are alsoreinforcing their intrinsic long-term needs, not just manipulating theirshort-term external behavior. Giving rewards can be manipulative, but theydo not have to be and I suggest seldom are for an ethical manager. 

I've faced off against Alfie in TheSmall Business Forum and would be glad to send you a copy of this debate andthe limitations of Alfie's perspective. Please contact my office at800/575.5521 or email me your address at


Your question has a double challengeof trying to motivate dispersed and culturally different team members. 

Iwrote an article for Global Workforce entitled "Motivating WorkersWorldwide" that you might consider looking at that addresses some ofthese concerns (contact my organization, Nelson Motivation Inc., if youcan't find it at 800/575.5521). 

Some potential ideas:

  • A letter of thanks from the CEO oran upper manager

  • A memo and letter of thanks(personalized to each team member) from the team leader.

  • A gift exchange! Asking each memberto purchase a token gift for another person in the group that has beenhelpful to him or her, asking them to select something that person wouldlikely value and to send it with a personal note of thanks.

  • A financial bonus for team members,allocated according to a 360 assessment of contribution conducted by theteam.

  • Having all team members presenttheir findings.

  • Creating a photo collage of all teammembers to be displayed at corporate headquarters with a description of theteam's achievements.

  • Approved time off (an afternoon, aday, and a week) granted to all team members.


In positions in which financialincentives are especially limited, you need to be even more creative inthanking people, making them feel valued and in celebrating successes. Forexample, many call centers have the problem of low pay and a burnout job. 

However if the environment can bemade to be one that is fun and the people’s efforts are truly valued thenthe low pay and relentless press of the phone can often be better tolerated.See my book “1001Ways to Reward Employees” for ideas. 


Let me reference some backgroundinformation about team recognition and then answer your question. 

Team recognition is different fromindividual recognition in some important ways. We know individualrecognition works, and we know that if you want to continue to get teamwork,you better recognize the work of teams. The tricky part is if you recognizethe team, typically some members of the team did more work (or ALL the work)than others and you end up slighting the performers and actually reinforcingmarginal performance of the low or non-producers. 

What is needed is to use individualrecognition skills with individuals in the group and within the group as theleader. Then as the group works together to become a team, along the way allmembers of the team assume leadership skills, one of which is therecognition of others. Then as the group truly performs as a team it can berecognized as a team from outside the group. In this way all members have asense of pride and ownership in the team's work even though they may havecontributed differently to its success. 

As to your question, the problem ofaccountability needs to be addressed within the context of each team. Groundrules and expectations need to be set and all members of the team need tohold each other accountable, addressing problems as they arise with theteam. If one person is not truly committed to the team's work, that personshould be challenged to either become more engaged or else quit the team. 

The notion of financial team bonusescertainly would be useful in keeping team members focused and committed tothe end goal, but basing such rewards even in part on hierarchy and tenure Ibelieve would be a mistake. Team rewards need to be primarily based on teamperformance. I do like the idea of a 360-degree assessment of all teammembers on each other. This allows the team itself (who knows best) todefine who was most helpful in obtaining results and helps to make quantifya subjective feeling in an objective way to be aligned with designatedrewards.

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