Rewarding Your Employees

You don't have to spend a bundle to reinforce good behavior.

Q: I started rewarding my employees for their accomplishments first by buying them coffee and pastries. The next time I bought them lunch. When I started thinking about what to do next, it caused me to consider where this would end. Is it dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? A cruise? Where do I draw the line?

A: You are facing what I refer to in my book Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement as "escalation of the reinforcer," or the "escalation trap." This is a common problem. Many managers and business owners fall into this trap because they think each reward must have greater monetary value than the previous one.

In order to avoid this quandary, you must remember that positive reinforcement is not synonymous with money. Positive reinforcement is whatever a person will work to get. Generally, a positive reinforcer is any way we communicate to a person that we like, value or appreciate what he or she has done. It can be done with money, but it can also be done with a smile, a conversation or even a note.

I suggest you think in terms of "celebration," not "reward." A celebration may or may not be associated with some tangible recognition. A celebration is simply an opportunity to relive an achievement. A tangible item is simply a way to anchor the memory of the achievement.

A celebration can be with one person, or it can be with 1,000. It begins with the simple question, "What did you do to accomplish that?" The purpose is to let the employee or employees tell someone how difficult the job was or how clever or industrious the person or group was. The manager's role in a celebration is to help the employees recount all the details of the accomplishment. Often, people just like to be assured the boss knows who did what.

The purpose of the tangible item is to prompt the person to tell the story again. A coffee mug with some relevant phrase or logo on it often leads to the question, "Where did you get that?" The employee is then given the opportunity to relive the accomplishment. In this way, the tangible item keeps on giving.

Choose an object or activity that will prompt your employee or employees to retell their story. Remember, it doesn't have to be expensive to be memorable. Certainly from time to time you want to do things that have monetary value, but do this only intermittently. It is certainly appropriate on occasion to tell your employees, "If you get this job out by noon, I'll buy lunch." That can be very effective. However, you would not want to do that for every tough order.

You are certainly on the right track, because you recognize the importance of rewarding workplace accomplishments. The most common complaint from employees is, "No one notices what I do around here." You have not made that mistake. If you use the approach to celebrations mentioned above, I think you can avoid the "escalation trap" and have happier employees as a result.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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