Transforming Wrong Rewards Into Right Results

Negotiating the minefield of rewards and punishments.

By Brent Filson - 6/2007

The difference between learning leaders is ears. Good leaders not only ask good questions, but they actually (a daunting obstacle for some) listen to the answers.

A key question every learning leader must ask is: "What does our organization REALLY reward?" Listening to the answer may help you achieve marked increases in results for both you and your clients.

Clearly, rewards and punishments fuel a great number of organizational activities. But having worked with many leaders of many ranks and functions for many different kinds of organizations during the past quarter of a century, I’ve found that most organizations reward the wrong things.

Such organizations may pay lip service to rewarding people for what are viewed as the right things: getting results, getting the right results, getting those results at the right times in the right ways. But what they may really reward, often in terms of promotions, robust career tracks, and job perks, are such things as the care and feeding of top leaders’ egos, political conniving, and tyrannical leadership.

Here are ways to transform wrong rewards into right results.

(1) In the courses you develop and execute, build in facilitated discussions on what your organization REALLY rewards. The answers may surprise you, and they will invariably go right to the heart of the knowledge and skills being imparted.

I do this teaching my leadership courses; and participants report that one of the best parts of those courses is that facilitated discussion on rewards; because when participants have a give-and-take on the REAL rewards their organization promotes, unique, results-producing processes inevitably result.

Important: don’t get tangled in those answers. Don’t make value judgments. At this stage, you are just an observer. Simply compile the list. If you start jumping in with quickly-formed opinions, you’ll impede the flow of rich ideas.

(2) Gauge each item on the list against results your organization really needs. Does it help get results? Does it detract from results?

Do it this way: Pick out a single item from your list. Describe the problem in the item and identify who controls its solution. Execute a "stop-start-continue" process. What reward do you stop, what do you start, and what do you continue?

Don’t expect overnight success. Not only are many of these wrong rewards the results of ingrained habits but changing them seldom achieves quick results. Still, keep asking, What does my organization really reward? In the long run, when tackling the challenges that come with listening to the answers, you’ll be getting more results as well as sharpening your leadership skills.

(3) Ask, "What does your own leadership really reward?" When your leadership rewards the wrong things, you’ll get a fraction of the results you’re capable of. However, since we see the faults of others more clearly than our own, it may be more difficult to identify and deal with your own issues rather than your organization’s.

Do a 360-degree assessment. Select a single item from the list and apply the start-stop-continue process. Don’t simply eliminate the item. Such items can be grist for the results mill. Identify the problem in the item, then have the solution be a tool that gets results.

Guaranteed, you will get results. After all, you are eliminating a negative aspect of your leadership and replacing it with a results-producing one. When you make this a long-term endeavor — going from item to item — results will come to you in new and often unexpected ways.

(4) Encourage the people you lead as well as your clients to question the rewards aspects of their own leadership. Be aware of their reactions to your encouragement. Do they see the questioning as meaningful to their jobs? Do they want their colleagues involved in such questioning? Do they want to have senior management question their own leadership?

If people want the questioning to be a regular part of their daily work, continue it. If they feel it has little value, call a time-out. After all, if people believe they are powerless to change things in the organization, seismic questions like this will only frustrate and anger them and make them cynical.

As you go forward:

Cultivate among the people a common, self-reinforcing fervor for the questioning. Don’t force things. Be an observer and a supporter. Observe their reactions to the questioning, and support their efforts to make it succeed.

Encourage the development of networks of people taking the initiative to engage in the questioning together.

Now and then, and especially in the beginning, set aside special times and places to have them focus exclusively on such questioning, making sure they continually link the answers to getting increases in results.

Keep that linkage alive. This is not an academic exercise. It’s not meant to simply have people feel good or, on the other hand, vent their frustrations. Its sole objective is to get MEASURABLE INCREASES IN RESULTS. If results are not forthcoming, have people refocus on the need for the questioning; and if you still are not receiving results, curtail or even eliminate it for awhile. You can always reactivate it when the time and the environment are more conducive to having it succeed.

Avoid having the process deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing. The idea is not to use the questioning to get the goods on people or as a platform for emotional outbursts against the organization but instead to use it for what it is meant to be, a powerful tool to get more results faster continually.

Mind you, people shouldn’t be spending inordinate amounts of time on the questioning. Nor should it be seen as a major, discrete effort, like an operations or marketing program. Just the opposite: Constantly asking, Are we rewarding the right things? Should be a natural part of everybody’s leadership activities.

2007 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Note from Brent Filson: Rewards And Punishments Are The Lowest Forms Of Leadership.  Understanding what your organization really rewards and why is powerful information that will boost the effectiveness of your learning leadership activities. Please call, and let’s talk about how you can use leadership tools I have been teaching for a quarter of a century, tools that transcend rewards and punishments. My leadership methodologies can measurably enhance your clients’ job results-performance and their career paths, as well as the cultural effectiveness of your organization.




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Brent Filson
Brent Filson