What Are the Best Rewards for High Performing Individuals?

What is the best reward? We know that money, job status, trips, and gifts are important. However, they are inadequate for our best performers. Over and over again we find that the best reward is something that we can’t give. However, we can sponsor it.

Last week I did a workshop for high performing individuals, asking this team to engage in a new (to them) way of working with customers. You could argue that just being in the workshop was a reward, but the team members didn’t see it that way.

Successfully crafting rewards is a bit like the difference between marketing and sales. Marketing’s job is to present the company and products to groups of people. Sales is about listening to and convincing one person at a time. Most reward programs are like marketing, designed to motivate groups. High performing individuals are the hardest to motivate in this way. And yet, are these not the people whom you want to motivate most? The rewards have to be just as individual as they are.

At first, offering the workshop to these high paid and high performing team members was seen as a distraction, not a reward. As though someone was hoping to excite them as a group when they got to where they are as individuals.

There has to be a better way. We decided to make that happen.


Can Engagement and Challenge be a Reward?

My choice was to start the workshop with a jigsaw puzzle. The instructions were simple: “Assemble the puzzle.”

I have done this frequently. I use custom wooden puzzles and in each case I ask the team members to get out of their seats and play.

The play is part of the overall lesson plan for the workshop, but just as important it feels like a reward. How often are you invited to interact and play at the start of a meeting?

There is no question that fun helps people learn, but the key here is the engagement. It’s a reward in itself, a chance for each individual to participate on their own terms. By letting them choose how to assemble the puzzle, we are both showing respect and promoting their own epiphanies. You can hear the Ahas, and the smiles radiate.


Are Light Bulbs Going Off the Best Reward?

We spent most of the workshop asking and answering High Gain questions. This meant that we went from the puzzle to a flood of Aha moments for the individuals. Every time someone learned something, you could see the proverbial light bulb over her or his head. The key to the light bulbs? Asking questions to help the individual learn from their own understanding.

“High Gain Questions” is a term coined by the Boston Consulting Group to identify questions that promote learning. A good High Gain question is one that brings the recipient to deduce from within. When it works, you can see the epiphany and the smile comes with it.

What are some examples? In the workshop I followed the puzzle with the question: “How will you define success at the end of today?” The result was, as it almost always is, a long silence. Why? Because no-one asks them that question.

Asking it has two effects. One is that it sponsors learning for the individuals. The other is that the question shows a level of respect that is, in itself, a reward.

Other High Gain questions that we asked include:

            - Why do your customers buy from you? Why should they? Why is there a difference?

            - Do you sell ideas and products the same way that you like to buy them? Why is there a difference?

            - Do you make presentations? Do you ever add extra pieces to them, like I did with the puzzle? Is that useful? Is it respectful?

What makes High Gain a reward? That the individual finds or makes the answer. It’s not about telling them the answer and asking them to memorize it. There is a place for classic classroom education, but that isn’t a reward. The reward is the sense of satisfaction that each individual gets when they learn the answer from themselves.

The best rewards come from within. To make them happen we don’t instruct, we educe. We don’t push rewards in, we draw them out from the individuals. The best rewards are when we help people discover more. The light bulb moment is the best gift that we can arrange.


What Does it Take?

If we want to generate this kind of reward, it means that we will value what goes on in the mind of the recipient. It implies creating events where each individual can both think aloud and grow. In other words, it is a one to one or small group activity.

Instead of focusing on a corporate program, consider focusing on the individuals. Make a puzzle, devise some High Gain questions, give them the individual respect and opportunity that is so rare in the current environment. Do it in 1-to-1 meetings. Take small groups of your high performers out of the office for a day and respect their ability to learn. Those allow them to generate rewards for themselves that we can never equal in a program. And you may reward yourself just as much. Isn’t that a good thing?