Gary Gill – How reward can demotivate

Before joining Engage for Success as its research director I was working in an area of complex UK tax law and I asked a seasoned colleague: “Where's the line between tax avoidance and legitimate tax planning?” I was expecting a complicated technical exposition of the distinction. Instead, I was told “You just use the elephant test – it may be hard to describe but you know it when you see it.”

Elephants herd walking on the plain

When I started in this role I saw the same type of discussions about what ‘employee engagement’ means. It seems no two people will come up with the same definition.

So when REBA asked me to pen a blog I started to wonder how you could measure the effectiveness of reward and benefits on engagement levels. And pondering that little thought reminded me of yet another organisation that I worked for, outside the UK.

Missing connection

In some ways, it was a very generous employer but had an unimaginative pay structure: the longer you worked there, the higher your pay. There was no mechanism for being recognised for good work. There seemed to be a presumption that everyone would simply come in and do a good job with no further incentives.

The only people I saw who seemed motivated were those at the bottom of the pay ladder, hungry for a pay rise. But once people reached a certain level, their enthusiasm levels waned and those who had been there the longest had completely lost any emotional connection with the company.

The reason, they told me, was there was no distinction between good and bad performers, no recognition of effort, or individual success or of anything else for that matter. And because of that they felt the company did not value anything beyond people turning up every day.

What had seemed on the surface to be a pretty generous rewards package was having a detrimental effect on a huge proportion of the most experienced employees. It wasn’t working and it was clear to everyone I spoke to that it wasn’t working.

Application and measurement

For me, this showed that employee reward is not simply about monetary benefit but also the application and apparatus for how such rewards are applied. In my example ‘more reward’ absurdly resulted in ‘less engagement’ because it had been done with no thought. I now believe that measuring the success of a reward and benefit system is far more nuanced than one might think.

Now I’m sure there are loads of studies that can demonstrate the link between reward and benefits and employee engagement. But maybe another ‘elephant test’ is all that is needed. If it looks like an organisation’s reward and benefit system is working, then it probably is. If it looks like it isn’t, then it almost certainly is time to call in some help!

By the way, even though I was on the bottom rung of that pay structure, it disengaged me – because I could see what the future held, and ended up returning to the UK.

This article is written by Gary Gill, research director, Engage for Success

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