Be Careful What You Reward For

Conventional wisdom says, “be careful what you wish for”. But should the caution really be, “be careful what you reward for”?

In schools, the workplace, your kid’s soccer team, your dog training class… Are we properly rewarding the behaviors we want?

At the end of the school year last year, I was perplexed to find out that at my daughter’s 1st Grade Awards ceremony would highlight which children had:

  • Perfect attendance
  • Received the Rachel’s Challenge award (a program that promotes kindness and zero tolerance for bullying at schools) 
  • Various other awards in art and music…
  • Would NOT be highlighting the kids who made the Honor Roll


And I repeat, WHAT?

As stated, I was perplexed, but was going to chalk it up to a poor judgment call from what I hoped was an isolated individual. I’ve since found out that, no, that was a school-wide approach. (You wouldn’t want the children not on Honor Roll to feel bad – would you?)

What? My brain literally still has trouble processing it. (And actually yes, if my kids aren’t on the Honor Roll, I would want them to be disappointed and be striving to be on it next time.)

This is a school – right? Where the point is academic success – right? Or is it? If you had no other interaction with that class except on that day, you would take away the lesson that the whole point of that class was 1) to be nice to each other and 2) show up every day.

Certainly those are reasonable goals, but not the bar I’m looking for. We aren’t rewarding those that did the work and got good grades? And we wonder why, (insert any number of studies here) the US is lagging behind the top countries in the world in education? So, more discussions with my school district to come, but you get the point.

Unfortunately, you see all kinds of misplaced rewards in the workplace too. I can’t tell you the number of “Firefighter” or “Extraordinary Effort” type awards I’ve seen given out over the years in all types of companies – big and small.

Yes, I’m glad that people pull together and achieve difficult programs or go the extra mile to help someone else, but where are the “I did my work on-time and with consistent, excellent results” awards? I’ve seen far fewer companies that take the time to design good awards for those folks.

Many companies are quick to reward those that help right the ship, but not those that don’t steer it into the whirlpool to begin with!

All this to say, the next time you start thinking about a rewards program for whomever – think about what message you’re sending with the award.  Do you:

  • Want more of that behavior?
  • Want other people to start doing that behavior?
  • Want to elevate the perception of that behavior?

Those behaviors might be key behaviors that you want to see, but please beware of the behaviors you may be helping to extinguish by not rewarding them.

Kirsten Jordan is a Partner at PeopleResults. She can be reached on Twitter @Kirstenkbdb. Sign up to receive her and her colleagues’ blog at Current.