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Independent Academic Research Supports Engaging Rewards Principles

Research conducted by organizational psychologists in Canada underline similar best practices highlighted by U.S. research that appear to be widely overlooked in program design. Industry research and ISO 10018 standards that include rewards and recognition demand a new level of expertise in program design and implementation.

Over the last 20 years, the SITE Foundation, Incentive Research Foundation, Incentive Marketing Association, Incentive Federation and many more have underwritten research from respected educational institutions and others demonstrating the value of properly designed incentive programs that encourage positive behaviors across the organization, as well as the selective, creative, and personalized use of non-cash rewards to engage people. Despite such compelling research, it appears that a large percentage of campaigns to engage people continue to overlook best practices related to program design and reward selection and presentation - i.e., too often programs promote negative behaviors or reward people who would have performed anyway, and lack a reward strategy necessary to ignite powerful intrinsic motivators and advance the meaning of work, which have been identified as important performance factors in research.

Research Too Independent to Ignore 

Dr. ForrestIf the research is ignored because some companies believe the information is tainted by industry funding or other biases, a compelling perspective comes from Jacques Forest, Research Professor in Organizational Psychology at the Business School of the Université du Québec à Montréal, and one of his students, Anaïs Thibault-Landry, Ph.D candidate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Dr. Forest, who says his research focuses on motivation and how fun, meaning and well-being affect performance, has not received any funding from the U.S. rewards and recognition marketplace and has pursued his research independently of any influence of the industry’s perspective. Thibault-Landry is working on her thesis with Professor Forest and will do a research internship with Ashley Whillans, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School. (See Harvard Prof Says Total Choice is Bad In Reward Selection). 

Ana´s Thibault LandryThibault-Landry’s thesis is titled: “The functional meaning of cash rewards and its effect on workers’ motivation, performance, and psychological health based on Self-Determination Theory.” The hypothesis behind her Ph.D thesis is based on her own research with Dr. Forest and others indicating that rewards used in a controlling way as carrots can create counterproductive behaviors, and that the best results come when organizations leverage reward systems to be in line with their organizational values and to encourage workers to be competent and fulfilled at work. “If an organization uses point rewards with the mindset 'If you do this, I give you this', it’s just the same system as money,” she says. “Rewards are about reinforcing values and the messages organizations wish to communicate. If there is not a purpose to the rewards, if they are not personal and meaningful, they won’t have the effect you want, and might even have negative effects. Whatever is sent or given to someone should be with a thank-you note or some other way to set the presentation apart or you will not be addressing the underlying fun, meaning and appreciation that sustains personal engagement.” 

Self-Determination Theory Drives Beneficial Research on Motivation

The work of Dr. Forest, Thibault-Landry, and their colleagues is based on Self-Determination Theory (SDT) developed by two American psychologists (Edward Deci and Richard Ryan) that has become the basis for considerable research in human motivation. According to the official website, SDT “articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences.” Professor Forest says a lot of his recommendations related to the use of rewards and recognition are based on research conducted with colleagues and the work of Dr. Ashley Whillans and Michael Norton at Harvard Business School and Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia. Some findings were further corroborated, he says, in lab experiments Thibault-Landry conducted with adult participants.  
To provide a platform to collect research on motivation, Forest and his colleagues have created an ongoing “survey-based, cross-sectional, international and employee-based tool” known as the Multidimensional Work Motivation Scale (MWMS). It measures 4 different types of motivation and the absence of motivation with 19 items and provides an individual score for each individual with recommendations on how they can improve their motivation. The Multidimensional Work Motivation Scale was developed and tested using data from 3,435 workers in seven languages and nine countries. Analysis of results across languages showed similar needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. The theoretically derived antecedents to motivation at work (e.g., leadership and job design) predict different forms of motivation, which in turn lead to important work-related outcomes (well-being, commitment, performance and turnover intentions). In other words, motivate people properly and you will experience positive performance outcomes. Do so improperly at your own peril. 

A Free Tool to Gauge Your Own Motivation

The MWMS tool is designed to be used by career consultants, organizational psychologists, a manager within a team, or an individual to help people identify what they're lacking in their careers and job satisfaction and how these issues can be addressed. To conduct your own personal motivation test using the MWMS, go to irpcanada.com. “If you are lacking in fun and meaning in your work, or if someone is too focused on money or his reputation, it will show him or her how to improve the meaning of money, or put money in its rightful place,” says Forest. 

So what is the essence of the findings of the research Forest and his team have conducted, and from what he and Thibault-Landry have studied in other academic work?  Forest answers, “Fun and meaning are the best predicters of sustainable engagement, with fun (intrinsic motivation) being a good predictor of well-being and meaning (identified motivation) being a good predictor of performance and persistence. You will get the best results when rewards are informative rather than controlling. They are informative when rewards promote autonomy, competence and connection to colleagues and the organization. They are controlling when people focus on the outcomes and rewards rather than on the actions and process. In fact, when that’s the case, it can lead to bad outcomes, as we saw with Wells Fargo, for example.” 

Says Thibault- Landry: “You have to avoid a situation in which there are strings attached to rewards. You will get better results if people don’t feel controlled by compensation or rewards to do something. At the same time, if there is too much ambiguity, and the goals are not clear enough, you can have a negative impact. It’s really about striking a balance: to make people feel they are rewarded with the right ‘vitamins’ they need to thrive, without over-emphasizing the contingencies.” 

4 Ways to Get Better Results 

Here’s a summary of other key recommendations from Forest and Thibault-Landry:
  1. In communications, put the focus on the goals, objectives, mission and meaning rather than on the rewards so that the greatest reward is the satisfaction of accomplishment, not the reward itself. “The perception of the reward is more important than the reward itself,” says Thibault-Landry. “It is about drawing attention to the accomplishments and actions that lead to the results.”
  2. Reward and recognize actions and behaviors as well as results, and make sure workers understand the connection between the two. “When designing the program, the link between behaviors and results should be clear, but not pressuring, to avoid making this link being perceived as controlling rather than informative, i.e., positively encouraging and reinforcing workers’ contributions.”
  3. Make sure that rewards are a personal expression of appreciation that makes a connection, not only with the recipient but with family, significant others and colleagues, and contributes to a sense of meaning. “Rewards that are meaningful, create a connection and enhance life experiences are more motivating than materialist rewards or rewards that are purely valued for their prestige.” 
  4. Select rewards that communicate values and important messages and that reflect an understanding of individuals. Thibault-Landry says that her research with Ashley Whillans at Harvard Business School indicates that rewards should: 1) be accompanied with verbal and authentic recognition; 2) be based on individual employees' preferences as surveyed (implying thorough investigation and assessment before implementation); 3) be well-aligned with performance evaluations, perceived as fair and equitable as much as possible (in relation to the employee's individual contribution, other workers' contribution and the processes of allocation in place); and 4) include non-cash rewards such as time-saving coupons/vouchers or experiential/non-materialistic rewards such as trips, activities (spa, restaurant, special conferences/events, skill training, etc.), or other tangible rewards that enhance life experiences that resonate with people, as opposed to cash-equivalents. 
When properly designed, reward strategies can support almost every component of engagement, she says. “To demonstrate that an organization values work-life balance it can host parent/kids initiatives, give additional time off, allow people to work remotely and provide gym memberships; to promote cooperation and constructive teamwork it can offer friendly competitions and incentives, multidisciplinary initiatives, and host business unit competitions and activities. To promote innovation, it can send people to conferences, networking events, or invest in latest technology, etc. To foster trust and autonomy the organization can offer flex-time and pay for skill development.” 
Properly used rewards and recognition can support almost every aspect of an organizational strategy, she concludes. 
Editor's Note:
Organizations interested in supporting research in motivation should email Anaïs Thibault-Landry, as there is an opportunity for organizations seeking to support valuable research to benefit from the findings of her work in return for a stipend. 
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