Make the most of failing motivation schemes

Kate Donovan questions how organisations can rectify or restructure failing motivation schemes

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Poorly-thought out gifts may not always be received with the enthusiasm the giver hoped for. Similarly, in the workplace, motivation schemes that have not been properly thought through can backfire even if implemented with the best intentions. However, there are ways and means for employers to prevent a scheme making employees feel under-valued. And even if a reward has already been given, all is not lost.

If a decision has been taken to motivate using extra rewards in order to ensure a specific target is hit or staff are given a boost, it can sometimes do more harm than good. Neil Conway, lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck College, says: "It could be that the thing the employer is offering is something employees already have, it could be seen as an insult or perhaps wasn’t delivered in the way they said it was going to be offered."

Where an employer provides a one-off gift as a blanket reward to all employees, this can indicate a lack of understanding of their workforce’s diversity. Offering some degree of choice, therefore, is beneficial. Mike Davies, group client services director at BI Worldwide, explains that achieving an idiosyncratic fit can be important, in other words, employers should imagine staff asking ‘is this right for me?’

Insufficient research into employees’ demographics and values can lead to more serious problems. Clare Rutherford business incentives manager at House of Fraser Business Incentives, says: "A bad and potentially offensive idea would be to provide prizes of alcohol to someone whose culture, beliefs or religion does not allow them."

One option is to award motivation vouchers. Although matching employees to different types of vouchers can be difficult to administer, it is possible to do.

However, when a programme fails to make a positive impact, there are ways to rectify the situation. Ellen Perton, creative development director of Archer Young, says: "I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. Sometimes programmes fail due to something really simple, for example, the unavailability of performance data. It is often possible to save the day by addressing the issue head-on, communicating it and trying to find a short-term fix while you address the problem."

Employers should ensure that they are seen to be tackling the problem, however, rather than simply ignoring it. "The worst thing that happens is launching a motivation scheme and then letting it flounder. It is twice as hard to re-launch the activity once your audience has lost faith and the programme has lost credibility," adds Perton.

Andrew Johnson, director general of VA, (formally the Voucher Association), agrees: "I don’t think one should ever be afraid to say ‘stop, this isn’t meeting our objectives’. You wouldn’t necessarily have to put your hands up and say ‘we got it wrong’. You could define your strategy and look again at what the end reward might be and make sure that whatever has already been earned is added into whatever you do going forward."

Attempting to recover lost employee motivation is favourable to dwelling on problems. If a scheme is based around staff achieving set targets, it is worth re-evaluating these if they have initially been poorly set in order to make them seem more attainable for employees, particularly those lower down the organisational ladder.

John Sylvester, director, motivation and incentives division at P&MM, says: "You often get a cynical response from staff when you’re asking them to do something different or above their job and you are putting an incentive programme in place to try and encourage them to do it. So, my first question would be is it delivering the result that you set out to deliver in the first place?"

Even if staff are grumbling about the scheme, change may not be necessary if it is on target to achieve what it was originally introduced to do, such as reducing absence or increasing productivity. Attaching a clear commercial objective to a motivation scheme can help to cut the risk of failure.

Sylvester says it is important that employers do not lose sight of the original reasons for incentivising staff. "If it is working, we don’t need to change it and it’s worth bearing in mind that if we take it to a customer-type relationship, the customer in this particular model is not the employee, it’s the business. You’re trying to deliver something for the business and the employee is the route to the delivery."

However, where a motivation scheme is not having the desired effect, change is vital. In these cases, Sylvester believes staff will be pleased if their employer responds to feedback. Making changes doesn’t have to be complicated. "That’s one of the beauties of these programmes. They are designed to be flexible and to change to meet the needs of the business," he adds.

The best course of action is often to learn from mistakes made under the old scheme. "It depends how long the programme is intended to go in for. If it is a short, tactical initiative then you might just want to let it run its course and deal with the learnings on the next one," says Sylvester.

Dilys Robinson, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, agrees that it is better to leave an initiative that disappoints where it is and to learn for future programmes. "Even if a gift has not gone down too well, if the organisation withdraws it, that can make things even worse. There will be people who say, ‘actually it was better than nothing’. If something has gone wrong, involving people in the solution is always going to help," she explains.

Consulting employees during the design process, either when shaping the structure of a scheme or selecting the reward attached to it, can also help to reduce the risk of problems occurring. A range of methods such as email, the intranet, talking to line managers and staff focus groups can be used to find out employees’ values. It is important to understand their likes and dislikes, as well as any common values that run through a workforce’s demographics. It is also worth bearing in mind the length of time that the programme is set to run.

"If you are looking at staff retention, for example, and the scheme runs over a whole year, you run a greater risk of losing staff at the beginning because they have such a long way to go," Johnson explains.

If it is an ongoing scheme, employers might find that the programme which started strongly appears to start to lose momentum. In this case, a push in communicating the scheme could be beneficial.

While there is a road to recovery from poorly-received motivation initiatives, it is useful to remember that there is a simple way to motivate employees that costs nothing. "Often, it’s more important to recognise the people that have been successful in winning the award, presenting the award properly and making them feel special," says Johnson.

What are the potential pitfalls?

The scheme design or reward offered is unsuitable for employees’ age, sex or desires.

The reward has a gimmicky-quality that could be perceived to insult the employees’ professionalism.

The reward conflicts with employees’ culture or religion.

The reward is offered for a target that is beyond employees’ reach.

The gift is selected on the assumption that money is the best motivator for everyone.

The incentive is something that the employee already has.

The reward is not delivered in the way it was originally promised.

How to avoid getting it wrong

Step 1

Identify the business objectives behind the initiative, for example: reducing staff absence, improving retention or productivity, or boosting customer service.

Step 2

Decide whether the rewards are target based and, if so, take care to set achievable parameters.

Step 3

Before selecting a programme or one-off gift, research employees’ desires using tools such as email, the intranet, line manager interaction or focus groups.