Each year companies use incentives to motivate their people—gift cards, travel awards, choices of merchandise. Non-monetary incentives are a $90 billion-dollar industry and growing.

While we certainly support the idea of rewarding employees for their good work, we can’t but help remember meeting an outstanding sales professional who, for two years in a row, had won a trip to Hawaii as one of his company’s top producers.

Sheepishly he admitted that he’d never taken the trips; he was terrified of flying.

The Problem with Incentives

The problem we find is that many companies use non-cash incentives with the best of intentions, but without really knowing what motivates their people. And most of our people are motivated in very different ways.

A few years ago we worked with eminent psychologists Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves, authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, to develop the Motivators Assessment—a scientific test to determine a person’s core motivators. After tests with working adults around the world, the results showed that we humans share a group of 23 fundamental motivators that drive us at work. Each of us varies in which of these specific drivers are most important to us and the particular order of priority. Some are driven most by teamwork and challenge, others more by ownership and service, still others creativity and learning.

Motivated by Our DNA

Think of this as akin to the way DNA shapes each person. Those with the same educational degree, those in the same profession, even those in the same family may be motivated by very different things.

More than 50,000 people have now taken the Motivators Assessment, and we’ve found that each person has a motivation fingerprint that can help a manager understand how best to reward them. This means that while some people will thrive on recognition such as receiving a gift card from their boss, for others it will have little effect on their motivation. Some who are strongly motivated by money will be driven by the promise of a spot cash reward, while others would feel more appreciated if they were rewarded with the chance to lead a project and use their creativity. Some folks would love to be recognized with an opportunity to become a mentor, while others would find such a task to be more of a curse. Some would prefer time off with family, while others might wish for a reward for professional development.

When managers begin to have a more refined understanding of the motivators of their people, they can find more effective ways to reward their employees. Yes, it might take a little more time, but the benefits for those who do this can be profound.

Learn What Motivates Your Team

A manager who benefitted from the process is Diane Weed, vice president of the Denver division of The Wendy’s Company. Weed has eight direct reports who oversee all the restaurants and the thousands of Wendy’s teammates in the Rocky Mountain area. She put her Motivators Assessment results along with her team members’ on a grid and examined the similarities, uniques, and cautions.

An eye-opener, Weed told us, was that seven of her eight team members had ‘Learning’ as a top driver, where for her it fell in the bottom three. That information has helped her ensure she’s rewarding her team members with opportunities to learn and grow. And that sends powerful messages: Not only is the company is willing to invest in these employees and help them move forward in their careers, but their manager actually knows and cares about the specific things they find motivating.

To retain good people, it’s time for leaders to join the 21st century.

We must learn what drives each and undertake the task of rewarding our team members as individuals. Conventional wisdom has long been that all members of a company will be motivated by the same incentives (and it’s often what the boss thinks is rewarding).

With all due respect: That is old school thinking, and it is preventing leaders from achieving all they can.

Understand Your Team's Motivators

One Comment

  • Joyce says:

    Completely agree with the article. The example of the employee who received the Hawaii vacation is great and one I will use to help make this point in the future. To follow this means people leaders must be given more leeway in determining incentives – not necessarily HR determining for all departments. The chellenge (and I think in some companies fear) is how to give different incentives that are viewed as fair (of the same value).

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