Why Incentive Is Not The Answer

I was doing a business growth keynote in Dallas Texas a few weeks ago, the title of which was A Female Motivational Keynote Speaker’s Guide To Full Team Engagement. My keynote focused on the sorry state of employee engagement today, why the level of engagement of our employees is so critical to success today, and the innovative strategies today’s leaders need to know to fully engage their teams.

My keynote was followed by a workshop, a hands-on opportunity to roll up our sleeves and talk about how specifically to fully engage our teams.  During workshops, I always like to leave time for “hot seats”, a lightening round of live Q & A’s. Time where the audience can ask me anything they want, putting me on the “hot seat” to answer.  While this workshop was focused on culture and leadership, the audience kept turning the topic to employee incentive. A topic that were both interested in and concerned about.

They were full of questions:

  • How do you bonus employees?
  • How do you set goals so incentive is reachable yet won’t break the bank?
  • How should incentive be based on individual or team performance?

Their list went on and on, and so did the discussion. Now, while I am always happy to answer incentive questions, I always worry that too much focus on this topic means we, as leaders, are getting the cart before the horse. Believe me, paying employee’s incentive is a good idea, but it is not the only, nor the first, employee engagement strategy you need.

Believe me people are not motivated – long-term that is – by money, and they are certainly not engaged by it. Sure, you may light a temporary fire, you may get a temporary boost in sales or productivity, but the problem with relying on incentive is that it is never enough.

If money is the only employee engagement strategy you are  offering, then the only way to keep the team motivated is to continue to offer them more.

Now, if you are anything like my audiences, your plan for business growth does not include paying your employees more than you are taking home at the end of the day.  I am guessing it also does not include a desire for you to do all the motivating, all the heavy lifting, and for you to be the one that keeps your team engaged.  If I am right about that, and I know I am, then you need to change your business incentive model to include three other key employee engagement strategies.

Three Vital Employee Engagement Strategies

  1. Culture – First, you need to set the tone, create an atmosphere where team members who want to engage can engage. Create a culture where the direction is defined, the employee role is clear, and the values are actively used. Before you even think about designing an incentive plan, you need to invest in creating the right culture. To engage, your team members need to understand where they are going, what is expected of them, and what behaviors and actions you and your company value.
  2. Leadership – Next you need to give team members skin in the game. People support what they help create, and your leadership style needs to be one of inclusion rather than dictatorship. Intrinsic motivation is sparked when people feel the ideas and the goals are something they had a part in, and that their voice is heard. Before you pay for a job well done, ask your team members to help design the job.
  3. Performance – Last, you need to invest in your employees before you ask them to invest in you. An engaged team member is one that has been held accountable for their performance, and one that gets the support and help they need to improve their skills and their career. Invest in your employees and they will invest in you.

Only when those three employee engagement strategies have been put into place, should you, as a leader, even begin to think creating an incentive plan. If you want your team to care about your customers, care about your organization, and care about their own success, then you need to begin by laying the right foundation. A foundation that includes a solid culture, a leadership style that is participatory, and a consistent focus on managing performance.

Sure money is always a factor, we all want to make enough to pay our bills and do a little extra now and then; but while money is a good incentive, it is not the most important when it comes to engaging employees. The strategies of culture, leadership and performance are the ones that inspire and motivate a team.  Therefore, while I encourage you to pay your employees well, and advocate a good incentive plan, I never want to see you put the cart before the horse.  

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Motivational Keynote Speaker & Business Growth Expert, Meridith Elliott Powell works with clients to help them instill ownership at every level to ensure profits at every turn. Meridith is the author of several books, including her latest, “Own It: Redefining Responsibility: Stories of Power, Freedom & Purpose”. When not keynoting and leading workshops, she looks for inspiration cycling, golfing or hiking her favorite trail.  https://meridithelliottpowell.com