Use Natural Rewards to Motivate Employees

Use Natural Rewards to Motivate Employees

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  1. “If you want to keep a talented employee, show [them] not just that you care about [them], not just that you will help [them] grow, but, more importantly that you know [them], that in the truest sense of the word, you recognize [them].”  – Buckingham & Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths, 2001

    Leaders need to be positive, hopeful, and provide people with a sense of direction that encourages them to reach inside and do their best. With that direction and encouragement, employees will excel.  Sixty percent of high performers say that they are not recognized for good job performance and 63 percent say their managers don’t know what motivates them to do their best.

    Employees need to be recognized in order to encourage positive behaviors and improve productivity. The recognition does not necessarily need to be monetary. The type and degree of reward should be specific to the individual employee and can be achieved by simply knowing what motivates our employees.


    Natural Rewards

    In today’s culture of budget challenges, it is very helpful to know what natural rewards motivate people. Natural rewards are the inherent positive consequences of a situation or completing a task. For example, keeping my desk clean has a natural reward for me because I can easily find what I need.

    Natural rewards may be something as simple as having time do work that is personally rewarding; learning new skills; or taking on new and interesting assignments. When employees receive natural rewards, there is a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of pride and purpose in their work.

    Kenneth W. Thomas, author of Intrinsic Motivation at Work (2002), says that people want a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of choice, a sense of competence, and a sense of progress. This means that employees want to do work that makes a difference; they want to experience success at the tasks; and want to see progress.


    Meaningful Work

    The leader’s job is to notice what is going on, comment on it on it, and connect it to the bigger picture. Noticing performance taps into people’s need for a sense of meaningfulness. Notice employee’s progress notice, their struggles, achievements, efforts, and failures with careful attention. This is how leaders learn what works and what does not; as well as what matters most and what does not for each person.

    Keep up a dialog with employees. Learn what they think about current challenges and future opportunities.  Ask questions such as what you can do to help them; what should you should stop doing; what are their ideas, concerns, and interests?

    Find out what makes them laugh. Laughter is a good way to cope with workplace stress. It can also improve productivity and creativity because it relaxes the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and causes the brain to release endorphins, which make people feel good. And, laughing together can help build a sense of community.



    According to Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, U.S. Navy, Ret., “If all you give is orders, all you’ll have is order-takers.”

    The opportunity to exercise choice means that to accomplish the work, employees may select tasks that make sense to them and perform them in ways that seem appropriate in their judgment.  Not all work tasks are subject to choice. But, there are many opportunities to build choice points in day-to-day work, in staff meetings, and in one-on-one conversations with employees. If managers can refrain from tightly controlling every aspect of the work environment, they will see better performance and a higher level of energy in their employees and themselves. Maintaining tight control is exhausting.

    When delegating a project, describe the latitude the person will have in making choices and determining methods of work. Clearly state the expected results and the required time frame and agree on check points, benchmarks, and status reports.  Then, relax. Unclench your fingers and let the person take hold of the project.

    When the project is complete, debrief with the person and determine on what went well, what did not, and why. This is where the learning takes place – for leaders and employees.



    Employees feel competent when they are doing work that they care about and are doing it well. They are engaged and it feels good. Competence becomes a natural reward when leaders recognize that their employees are doing well and when others recognize and acknowledge their work. Leaders reach this state of competence over time as they gain expertise and skill. When working to develop or enhance the competence of employees, answer the following:

    • For each member of my team, what is her/his current level of competence?
    • What am I doing to develop the competence of my employees?
    • How am I using work assignments to build competence?
    • How do I communicate about performance?
    • Do I notice and acknowledge success with genuine enthusiasm and appreciation?
    • Do I notice both the star performers and the supporting players? Individual and team accomplishments are almost always supported by the efforts of many others who make it possible for the team or individual to shine.
    • Do I show unwavering confidence in each person’s competence and ability to rise to the challenge?
    • When discussing performance problems or gaps with an employee, do I tell the person that I am confident that they have what it takes to turn the situation around? Believing in someone often gets the desired results.
    • When there is a problem with performance, do I clearly and specifically communicate what needs to happen; how I will help the person; how and when I will measure results?



    Recognizing progress gives people a sense that their efforts are paying off; that they are working on a meaningful task, exercising their choices, and performing with competence. Measures, milestones, and celebrations help mark the progress of the work. When there are no obvious points to mark progress, it helps to build them into the work.

    With no markers, work is an endless progression of repeating tasks. Leaders may need to help their employees identify milestones or markers so that progress is self-evident. Milestones can be objective, accurate measures, such as dollars saved or customers served.

    Or, they can be subjective assessments of progress, such as acknowledging improvement in customer satisfaction scores or the increasing occurrence of favorable comments from customers and coworkers. Using milestones helps managers track the direction of work and helps employees capture important information about the results of their work.


    Thank You –The Most Overlooked Natural Reward

    Remember to say thank you. These two words can have a significant impact on employees and they don’t cost anything. When saying thank you for a job well done, be very specific about the work or behavior that is being recognized and the impact the work or behavior had on the customer, co-workers, leaders, etc

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