The Risks of Rewarding


This post is going to get personal. I’m going to be upfront with you about how I handle rewards at work. I’m going to air my dirty laundry. To be clear, I will NOT rail against my company’s practices in this post. The goal is not to shame them but for me to share what I observe about what I tell myself about myself. My hypothesis is, you will relate to my struggle. Perhaps the questions I pose or the actions I propose will be of use to you. At the very least, if you too struggle with these things I may succeed by convincing you that you are not alone with these thoughts. You may even come away with thoughts of action you want to take.

I see what you did there

We have 3 reward structures that I know of:

  1. Yearly bonus
  2. Raises
  3. Merit rewards

The first two haven’t presented much of a struggle. It has been #3 that seems to get me nearly every time. As such, I’ll be talking about what I’m calling merit rewards today. These are rewards given to individuals showing meritorious action or attitude. But first, some definitions.

In his book, Drive, Dan Pink talks about if-then rewards in contrast with now-that rewards. The main difference is when the rewards are given and the expectation of those who stand to be given the reward.

If you…then I’ll…

For an if-then reward, an expectation is put before a person that if they meet a certain expectation then they will receive a reward. Additionally, a penalty or punishment may be applied if the expectation is not met. These are the pieces needed for the classic if unimaginative carrot and stick approach to motivating employees. Though effective in some scenarios, this approach has been well documented to at best be neutral in effect in some others and at worst produce the opposite of the desired behavior in others. Do you know what those scenarios are? If not, check yourself and read Pink’s book before you wreck yourself. You’ll thank me later :).

Now that you…I will…

This second category of merit rewards is given out almost as surprise gifts. The recipient is going about their business doing something of merit and someone detects the behavior. The reward giver decides now that the behavior is present, the doer of the laudable thing deserves a reward. This approach has a few benefits over if-then rewards:

  1. Rewards intrinsically motivated behavior
  2. Not as habit forming
  3. Harder to game the system

If a person is rewarded sometimes for behaving in a meritorious fashion, then it’s unlikely that a person can form a cause and effect relationship between his or her behavior and the reward. Therefore, it’s more likely a person will be rewarded for something they are intrinsically motivated to do. The reward becomes a positive reinforcement of behavior we are already inclined towards and therefore does not as easily become an extrinsic motivation to change behavior.

The habit-forming effect of if-then rewards is also well documented. Pay me $1 to take out the trash and I’m happy the first time and maybe the second. Somewhere down the line, I don’t get the same chemical or psychological reward from hauling garbage and want more. Now-that rewards have a much smaller risk of causing the same habit-forming behavior in people, plain and simple. We don’t know how to chase our next fix. We don’t know how much it will be or if we’ll even get it. When we do get one, it’s a surprise gift we didn’t expect we would be given!

Additionally, since the reward is not formulaic people are less able to change their behavior to game the system; they simply don’t know what changes will yield more or fewer rewards. Presented with this ambiguity, most will simply choose to not play the game. They’ll continue acting as they feel intrinsically motivated to act. They may even be inspired by those given rewards and resolve to imitate the qualities or behavior being rewarded.

Our version of the now-that reward

We have a program where our leadership presents cash rewards to people who demonstrate particularly laudable behaviors and attitudes. These now-that rewards are given out fairly randomly as far as I can tell. To say “randomly” is not to say there is no rhyme or reason to who receive the rewards or how the rewards are chosen. People who receive rewards are judged to display behaviors and attitudes consistent with our company values. The timing of these rewards is roughly quarterly and at all-company meetings or gatherings. In this much, they are somewhat predictable but not enough to activate numbers 1, 2, or 3 from the above list.

There is a souped-up version of these merit rewards given much more rarely called the CEO award. It’s given to particularly prolific demonstrations of meritorious behavior. These are moments to applaud individuals who have accomplished incredible things as employees that significantly and positively impact the well-being of the organization. The cash reward is substantially greater, but like the other merit rewards, these are difficult to game and definitely draw upon a long pattern of intrinsically motivated behavior.

My stuff

Before I get into this I want to recapitulate a thought from earlier. These following thoughts are the stories I tell myself occasionally. Lest you think they afflict me often, know they do not. Lest you think I’m laying blame on people or the system outside me, I do NOT. Have I made myself clear? Ok, here we go.

My work

Much of my work is a tough slog of coaching little improvements in others, waiting for the right moment to tug, constantly pushing myself to grow personally and professionally, and doing so with what I perceive as minimal publicity or attention. I’m the guy in front of the team calling it forth, yet the team is doing the visible work. I take pains to not be the guy who claims the credit. I’m the coach using my skill, presence, and curiosity to help individuals explore their situations, to get unstuck, or take courage to act. I’m the one who holds back from acting when others are served by me choosing to attend to them — to stand and wait. I’m the one who trains others to do what I do or to act as I can act. Basically, I’m working myself out of a job. Why would I do such a thing? Because it’s better for people and the organization that I do! Also, I trust my organization to partner with me to find new ways for me to bring value. The aphorism applies here: I believe my job is safe though my role may not be.

My reward

I received one of the smaller merit rewards a couple of years ago. If felt fantastic! It felt as if my hard work was recognized across the organization. The weight of all those unrecognized moments of servant leadership, of deferring recognition to others were wiped away in a glorious moment of affirmation. I think I rode that high for a solid month.

That was nearly 3 years ago.

When these awards are given out, I generally feel a desire to praise those awarded and even emulate them at times. That’s the good. The bad is when the inner critic pipes up and says, “Hmm, another round of awards and you were not chosen for them. I wonder if you’re still pulling your weight?” There was one particular award given to a team recently that was the biggest problem for me yet. I had been busting my butt on that team for over a year. Members of that team had told me they saw me as one of them, so closely had we worked together. Every member of that team was given an award. They were called up on stage and rightly lauded for their good work. I remember being in a state of shock and dismay. I was clapping for them and holding back tears. I was ashamed of my reaction. I was feeling covetous of their recognition, momentarily bitter and distrustful of those giving the reward, and even briefly discouraged to continue trying so damn hard. The thought flitted through my mind, “Am I one of these entitled millennial snowflakes who need to be affirmed constantly? Is my ego so fragile that I can’t suffer others getting praise without sharing in it too?

It took me the whole rest of the evening to get my mind out of that pit. Even so, I had to talk to a few trusted people in the following days to work out what was going on and make sure I didn’t fall back into it. Even so, the thing that caused that reaction was still there; the root cause lies undisturbed by my surface level countermeasures.

My treasure

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21 ESV

I’ve known this scripture since I was a little boy. Without realizing it, I was learning a key lesson that is teaching me how I should deal with these thoughts and feelings. My reaction to rewards exists on the surface. What causes those reactions lurks deep below. I am treasuring something that can be disturbed or taken away in my mind by this rewards program.

In coaching, we have an exercise designed to help the coachee identify his or her core values. It starts with a question like,

“What is important to you in life?”

Anything the coachee says in response to this is likely not a core value at this point. We’ve got to go deeper. The coach may ask follow-up questions like,

“What does that give you?”


“If that was taken away, what might happen?”


“What from your life experience makes that seem important?”

Through this process of inquiry, the coach and coachee navigate the foibles of surface thinking to arrive at the core values the coachee holds most closely as foundational. I’m not going to reveal to you the results of my personal inquiry in this forum. It should suffice to say that the root of my reactions lies within me and not without. The implication is this: the rewards programs are not the problem. Me making a treasure of recognition is.

My meditation

Like so many breakthroughs and moments of clarity I’ve had in the past, this one may easily be forgotten. Rumination is a wonderful and terrible reality of how our minds work. We can train ourselves to think constantly about life-giving things or soul-destroying things. My challenge is to memorialize this insight, make it accessible, and remember it often. My countermeasure is a sort of meditation. Some of you may read “meditation” and conjure pictures of a guru sitting in the full lotus and chanting mantras in a state of transcendent concentration. I mean nothing so idyllic or grandiose. For me, this looks like a post-it note with the phrase,

“Your treasure is not recognition, Your treasure is ____________.”

This post-it will be next to my desk where I will see it each day. Brene Brown tells stories of wearing a ring that she would rub or turn on her finger when she found herself in a difficult moment. That object forms for her a physical link to a mantra she wishes she’d never forget. I make up that for her, putting on these adornments is a bit like a soldier strapping on bits of armor. They prepare her to withstand the attacks she knows she’ll encounter. If Dr. Brown is like me, I suspect these attacks more often come from her own mind than from any person, system or assailant outside her own locus of control.

My resolution

So there you have it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It would have been nice to analyze and decry a rewards system that is inconsistent, damaging or unfair. Honestly, that would seem an easier assailant to fight. However, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t want that to be the case. An external opponent that controls my responses bodes ominously for my agency in all this. Though it may seem tempting, this would be taking an easy way out. Even if we had the best rewards program in the world, that gremlin would still be lurking below the surface, ready to snatch my joy whenever my treasure was threatened.

Your turn

As you consider what to do about your reaction to my struggles, it might be helpful to ask and answer for yourself the following questions. I hope it will be. It has certainly been helpful for me.

“What, if disturbed or taken away causes you the most fright or distress?”

“What have you made your treasure?”

“After thinking on these things, what do you want to always remember?”


Jason is a developer, Scrum Master, writer, teacher, coach, husband, father, and community leader out of Tulsa Oklahoma. He's been delivering software since 2007 and absolutely loves the values and principles of agility especially as given form by the Scrum framework.