Here’s a really great joke from Demetri Martin: “I think employee-of-the-month is a good example of when a person can be a winner and a loser at the same time.” That’s just perfect.

And yet, we run employee of the month programs all the time. We can’t help ourselves. We think about incentives as if they were the thing that mattered most. They are. But not those kind of incentives. Gold stars! Pizza parties! A special parking spot! Merit pay!

Yes, even merit pay has a warped set of dynamics around it. Every reward system does. This is the argument found in this week’s book Influencer but it’s also the central thesis in another excellent book by the educator Alfie Kohn called Punished By Rewards.

The big takeaway of that book can be abused in a hundred ways, just like reward systems. It goes like this: rewards and punishments are both tools for compliance. When people do things in either way, to gain a reward or avoid punishment, you won’t get their best. You’ll get the minimum amount necessary. They’ll do it without any real sense of intrinsic engagement. It will be, as Alfie puts it, “temporary obedience”.

You might not see it at first. It takes time. Because cheap influence built on these tricks always erodes. Yes, you can engineer an even better reward system built on performance contracts and that sort of thing. But then, even then, you still end up with bad stories of people rigging the game you’ve set for them.

The work can, and should, be reward itself. If it isn’t, no amount of additional reward is going to get you anything above rote obedience. You know what does help, though? Not more rewards but more information. This is a key ingredient of influence, too. The best employment engagement stems from strong relationships built on information-sharingWhen employees feel included by their manager, they feel trusted and valued. Compensation doesn’t carry the same effect, especially if it comes at the cost of genuine exchanges. Further, when employees receive new information related to a given effort, they gain new context and new meaning in their work. This changes the quality of their work, helps them adjust through their own understanding instead of having to somehow accept yours.

This is core to the theory of leader-member exchange (LMX). This is a theory that suggests something so common sense it almost gets taken for granted: that the quality of the relationship between a leader and a follower (e.g. direct report) determines the followers ability to make high quality decisions, take responsibility, and deliver great performance. It’s the equivalent of saying that staff don’t care about “Employee of the Month” programs or spot bonuses so much as they care about being treated like a valuable member of the team in the conversations, actions, and gestures that occur on a daily basis.

It goes beyond the usual relationship roles. Typically, the “professional” relationship between staff members is a bit aloof, fact-based, commodotized, and not tailored to the individual. But in studies of LMX, the best leaders extend a deep, unique level of emotional investment to each employee. The leader sees you for who you are, has interest in your story beyond work, values the times you share glimpses of that life, and weaves your experiences in the office with your experiences at home in a way that isn’t intrusive.

It’s almost as if, I don’t know, the person cares about you. Nothing creepy. Just genuine care.

Do all the reward system gimmickry you want, says Alfie Kohn and the LMX pioneers, but know that nothing is better than a leader who cares about you. And nothing overcomes the limitations of a leader who doesn’t.


Imagine by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner