For many people I think it would be fair to say that the peak of this summer’s entertainment has already been reached in the World Cup finals. Now, I can already hear your eyeballs rolling around in their sockets if you aren’t a fan and since I just missed out on the office sweepstake by drawing Argentina… I’ll draw a veil over the subject now. Well, more or less.

Whether you found yourself running down the street in jubilation at the result, were holding your head in abject misery, or paid the whole event no attention whatsoever, I wanted to draw your attention to something which has caused some discussion and I think holds resonance with the world of HR as much as it does with sport – the awarding of The Golden Ball to Lionel Messi.  This signifies that he was considered to be the best player in the tournament by its luminaries – something which most don’t agree with and even he seemed a little sheepish in accepting.

Rewards are an important part of making sure that your most outstanding employees feel that they are being recognised, and to try to keep them engaged. At the same time they encourage others to aspire to the right value sets with the promise that they too could reap the benefits of that level of performance if they replicated them in their own work ethic/achievements. But this can be a double-edged sword if they start being handed out to the undeserving or become commonplace and expected. Not only do you run the risk of encouraging behaviours which are actually detrimental to your company’s success, but you may alienate your workforce and even those individuals being wrongly rewarded are unlikely to feel particularly positive about the situation (if they have any form of self-awareness at all!)

I’d say this also applies to things which are obviously given to people “just because they haven’t won anything else” – George down in accounts hasn’t won anything in ages so let’s give him a £20 shopping voucher and a bonsai tree… when in reality everyone knows why this is being given to him and rather than being a positive experience, it’s more a brand of his general lack of outstandingness!

In an article on Forbes, HBS professor Ian Larkin’s research suggests that while more than 80% of companies “dole out” incentives like ‘Employee of the Month’ this kind of reward strategy can lead to people playing the system and only doing what is necessary to win, and actually leads to a degradation in the unmeasured other areas of performance (did I hear you mention Brazil’s woeful showing and repeated clear attempts to get an unfair advantage by playing for penalties?)

And so back to Messi. This is a man who, for many, has been vaunted as the best player in the world but who just plain didn’t perform in this tournament. If we feel that someone who has the right attitude to be the best would be happy to accept a prize that they don’t deserve, then we’re probably wrong – reward should be geared to real achievement, and the very best achievers are often acutely aware of how they have performed or underperformed. For those who weren’t so lucky, the role of communication is then highly important – so why *did* that person receive this accolade/reward/bonus? What can I do in order to win it next time? And, on a deeper personal level – do I agree with the values which have been judged to be admirable and rewardable….is this the right team/company for me if I don’t?

In short, make goals clear to everyone, and reward only those who achieve them while making the reasons behind it transparent. It sounds like a pretty basic concept, but every year there is a huge movement of employees just after bonus round, so it’s pretty evident that whatever those rewards are, they aren’t doing the job of keeping them in the team.

Having pledged not to mention the football, I think I did quite well.

Brett is Senior Consultant in London and can’t stop humming “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”.

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