Based on nearly 30 years in the incentive business, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about the next new “bright and shiny” object that will change the field of rewards & recognition forever. I hesitate to call out examples, as some would involve people I know, but the point is that our field has a tendency to focus on selling “things,” when at the end of the day clients are buying a means of building and enhancing relationships, communicating their mission and fostering positive emotions.

This focus on selling things does everyone a disservice by neglecting the hundreds of thousands of dollars in research that finally gives planners a serious basis for making decisions – and those findings run counter to some of the marketing claims of those who sell things for awards and recognition. Click here for a summary of rewards and recognition research.

If one analyzes all of the research on rewards & recognition, one is left with the sense that many, if not most, programs fail to distinguish compensation from recognition, and that many reward programs amount to a legal bribe from a psychological standpoint. This is particularly the case with simple “do this, get that” contests or other propositions that provide people with cash equivalents for hitting goals or some other actions, with no thought given to what tools or other motivations people might need to achieve those goals, or how to make sure the incentives don’t lead to unintended consequences such as sandbagging sales, inaccurate data reporting, or creating an expectation that these awards are now part of the pay package.

The reason for this focus on shiny objectives, I believe, stems from the many corporate planners looking for a quick gimmick to excite the troops; the fact that the average corporate practitioner has no training in rewards & recognition; is not familiar with or is skeptical of the research; does not recognize the risks of poorly designed programs; and because there are many product salespeople happy to accommodate them. Of course, there are many programs that are scientifically planned, but I can’t honestly say that in my experience these would add up to the majority. All evidence suggests that well under 50% of any type of incentive or reward program is ever seriously measured.

I wouldn’t have dared predict this even five years ago, but now that the engagement movement has taken hold, I believe that more corporate planners are becoming more open to science, and that more corporate practitioners will become receptive to rewards & recognition suppliers who ask questions about what the client is trying to achieve; the nature of the audience; what types of rewards or contests have been tried in the past; and what happened as a result. I believe there will be greater interested in concrete research or a sensible framework for making the case for an award strategy that will create memorable experiences, help communicate positive values and keep people focused on the actions that lead to success.

Written by Bruce Bolger