From the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

The idea is tremendously logical: Offer incentives to motivate workers to perform better. So you implemented a program, but productivity hasn't improved a bit. What's wrong with your employees?

Probably nothing. If your incentive program isn't producing the results you hoped for, chances are it's not your people but your program.

"It's common for management to decide to do something and assume that employees will be grateful, and then when employees are not, management thinks [the employees can't be motivated]," says Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. in San Diego and author of 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work (Workman Publishing).

For example, Nelson says, an employer who loves to travel may offer a trip to Mexico if certain goals are met-not realizing employees may not be able to arrange child care, may have a working spouse who can't take time off, or just may not enjoy traveling. Those employees don't want trips, but that doesn't mean they can't be motivated by something else. "What motivates people is their choice, not management's, and to [try to] force them to like something because you feel they should undermines the intent of incentives," Nelson says.

To evaluate existing or past incentive programs, consider the level of participation and enthusiasm of workers. Were they excited about the program? Did it lead to an increased focus on a desired behavior or activity? Were objectives met?

If you're considering a new incentive program, ask employees what motivates them. Nelson notes, "They're trying to get people into merchandise or travel, and that may not be what your employees want." Find out whether your staffers want public or private recognition, whether they want their family involved, whether they want products or cash or perhaps even paid time off.

Finally, be sure you deliver what you promise. Not providing rewards when employees meet their goals will guarantee your next incentive program flops.


Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 13 years ago and has been writing about business and management from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since.