Don’t Make These Motivation Mistakes

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Bob Nelson, Ph.D.

Because of its scope and complexity, organizational recognition efforts have the greatest likelihood to go awry. For this reason, many organizations avoid getting too creative with recognition programs, sticking instead with tried-and-true programs that, unfortunately, are often not all that effective in motivating employees.

To make the most of your organization’s recognition programs, avoid these common problems.

The rush to recognition. The starting point of many organizational recognition problems is poor planning. Some action-oriented companies tend to take a ready-fire-aim approach to planning. But where a systematic plan is highly desirable for individual and team recognition, it is absolutely essential for organizational recognition. Start with the end in mind of what overall you are trying to accomplish.

Confusing priorities and alignment. Without realizing it, management often sends a bewildering array of mixed messages by what is recognized that confuse, rather than guide, employees. When performance expectations are unclear, employees waste a tremendous amount of human energy trying to figure out what is really expected and various individuals and groups, which are supposed to work together, end up working at cross-purposes.

Subjective recognition. Too often recognition is given based on subjective impressions, which are notoriously inaccurate. Subjective recognition is uneven, at best, wrong and unfair, at its worst. It is important to use carefully defined objective criteria that aligns with organizational objectives. Checklists can be helpful to identify behaviors and results that are worthy of recognition.

Untimely recognition. Delay is the enemy of effective recognition. One of the challenges of organizational recognition is how to keep it streamlined and nonbureaucratic so that people can receive timely recognition. If every form of recognition needs management approval, many—if not most—recognition opportunities will be missed. Avoid recognition decisions that have multiple levels of approvals and always allow some forms of recognition that require no levels of approval at all.

Rewards that aren’t rewarding. I’ve seen many instances in which the awards given in a recognition or incentive program or contest created more problems than they solved. Deciding what employees most value without checking with them is a sure way to increase your risk of missing the motivational mark.

Inappropriate recognition. Sometimes recognition is too small or too large. Telling someone in the hallway that they did a “nice job” at the completion of a two-year project can be as inappropriate as giving an employee-of-the-month a cruise.

One size doesn’t fit all. Another basic mistake people make is to provide—out of a false sense of fairness—the exact same recognition or reward to every employee. Few things are as unfair as the equal treatment of unequals.

Loss of relevance and freshness. Managers and organizations often make the mistake of expecting a recognition program or activity to remain effective seemingly forever. Even the best of programs needs to be reevaluated and renewed from time to time—usually sooner rather than later. As a general rule of thumb, the shelf life of a typical recognition program today is closer to 15 weeks than 15 years. Find out what's working and what's not—and adjust the program accordingly.

Entitlement recognition. Employee recognition should be special, not routine. Too often recognition becomes “part of the landscape.” When recognition is routinely expected, it loses its value and its authenticity.

About the Author(s)

Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., the best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (now in its 52nd printing), 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook, and The Management Bible among others, and teaches organizational behavior at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego.