Recognise This! – The unexpected surprise delights us more than the expected reward.

I’m often asked about the difference between incentives and recognition (and if there really is one). Let me be clear – there is a very great difference between incentives and recognition. There is a role for both, though I tend to land on the side of recognition as the more powerful method for motivation, engagement and culture change in an organisation.

But incentives do have a place. Think of incentives as a competition, which can be between people or teams or simply a competition with yourself and your own prior performance. These can be fun and motivating to drive activity in call centres or on sales teams, but they can also go horribly wrong.

For example, I’ve rarely seen a safety incentives programme do what it was designed to – encourage safer practices. Instead, employees are incented to reduce safety incidents, which leads to them simply not reporting unsafe activities or events. Instead, employees should be incented to report areas where safety could be improved.

Better yet, employees should be recognised after the fact when they’ve made observations or changes that have resulted in a safer work environment.

What’s the difference? Incentives and the associated goals and rewards are known in advance. Recognition is always a surprise, never expected.

Why does this matter? Citing recent research, Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer, explains it this way:

The research out of Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine looked to determine based on changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli.

“They used a computer-controlled device to squirt fruit juice or water into the mouths of 25 research participants. The patterns of the squirting were either predictable or unpredictable. The researchers found that the MRI scans showed a brain area called the nucleus accumbens to be much more active when the subjects received unpredictable patterns of juice and water. …

“‘This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasure more rewarding that expected ones, and it may have little to do with what people say they like,’ said Dr. Gregory Berns, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Emory and Dr. Read Montague, associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor, the authors of the study.”

In other words, yes, it’s nice to receive the incentive we know we worked hard to earn, but it’s even better to be recognised unexpectedly by our colleagues who proactively noticed and expressed their appreciation for what we did.

Which do you prefer? Incentives or recognition?

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