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What Santa can teach you about motivating your employees

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This post is by Paul Marciano, author of “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.” Follow him on Twitter @drpaulmarciano.

Rewards may be effective in motivating the neighborhood kids to find your missing dog, but when it comes to motivating your employees, they fail miserably. In fact, most traditional reward and recognition programs lead to an overall decrease in employee morale and productivity, with “Employee of the Month” programs serving as the poster child of bad ideas.

There are at least 20 reasons why such programs fail, based on 40 years of research. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that I am perplexed as to how any competent human resource professional could, in good conscience, waste company resources on such programs — yet, they do it all the time. In the spirit of the holiday season, let me tell you why Santa would never use such programs.

The Santa Claus Effect. Ever notice how kids shape right up when they are reminded that Santa is coming to town and only gives toys to good boys and girls, while bad children get coal in their stocking? This is just another one of those “dangling carrot” programs that lead to temporary changes in behavior.

Programs fail because they are programs. Diets only work as long as you’re on them. After the carrot is given, behavior returns to baseline. If the carrot is not given, the behavior actually dips below baseline. You’ll notice how less effective dangling the Santa carrot routine is the day after Christmas.

Now imagine this: Only the very best kids get a present; every other kid gets stuck holding an empty stocking. In truth, lots of these kids tried really hard, but in the less than magical place called the workplace, effort doesn’t necessarily count. You win or you don’t. And, guess what? As your programs continue to reward only your top performers, you end up demotivating your average performers who do put forth extra effort but don’t get recognized.

In the words of the great Zig Ziglar: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.” Do you really want to have to worry about dangling carrots every time you want your employees to give their best? Oh, and do you want to be the employee who is told, “You better watch out?”

These are not approved-by-Santa techniques. These are strategies that parents have created to manipulate their children. This is the same way that most supervisors treat their employees.

Santa’s approach is different. He’s created a culture where employees want to perform their best every day. Why? Because he’s got a very clear and inspiring mission and vision that his workforce can get behind. His team members value the work that they do and see how it supports the goals of the organization. Not only do they respect the work that they do, they also respect Santa and their fellow team members, and they feel respected. I guarantee his elves aren’t being driven by some motivational program — e.g., the five most productive elves get to ride in the sleigh.

So, for the New Year, I suggest that you put your reward and recognition programs on the shelf and focus on creating a culture where your team members respect the work that they do and feel respected. By the way, Santa doesn’t only pay attention to his star players. If you really want to make a difference in your organization this year, find the overlooked Rudolphs with great potential and help them to shine.

Image credit: Tsuji, via