Which is more important – recognition or incentives?

I had a question poised to me in a group that I’m in regarding which is more effective/important, recognition or incentives? It got me to thinking about how we tend to try to simplify things into easily digestible answers (i.e., make the world black and white). It isn’t so simple. In reality, a truly effective motivational program needs to include both. It also needs to include a focus on intrinsic motivators (i.e., the three other aspects of the 4-Drive model: Bonding & Belonging, Challenge & Comprehend, and Define & Defend). When we look at motivation holistically, we have a number of levers that we are able to pull as leaders. The fact of the matter is, there is no one silver bullet. Everyone has a plethora of motivators that drive them everyday.

That being said, it is important to understand what those key motivators are. Asking people is obviously a key component of that, but I’ve found that often what people ask for, isn’t really what motivates them the most. It is important to get beyond the surface to the underlying motivators that people have. For instance, research that I’ve been part of shows that the majority of sales people will ask for cash if given the choice for an incentive reward (roughly 74% of the time), yet, we typically see a larger increase in sales performance for non-cash awards (on average about 15 – 25% better). Because of human nature, we don’t always know what really motivates us or we have been conditioned to respond in a particular manner to these types of questions. The difficulty is being able to identify what those real motivators are.

My belief is that incentive programs have to get more individualistic. That companies need to provide managers with more tools to be able to determine real motivators and set up individual programs for their teams. Of course, this is easier stated than done. The first step however is asking them. The second step is identifying peoples underlying drives. The third aspect is to ask them again after assessing their motivational profile, using probing questions to get at peoples real motivation.

Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this topic. What have you seen in your own business on recognition or incentives? How do you optimize them?

3 thoughts on “Which is more important – recognition or incentives?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Which is more important – recognition or incentives? « What Motivates You? -- Topsy.com

  2. Great question- one that many clients have. It isn’t either or – it’s the balance of each. It would be like saying which is more important – water or food. Both are required to live. Both recognition and incentives are required to guide behavior.

    Recognition provides the broad, value-driven reinforcement of company culture while incentives allow for tactical direction based on the company needs and the individuals ability and role within the company.

    Can’t have a great, high-performing company without both.


    1. thelanterngroup


      I agree – it requires a balance or combination of both in order to maximize an organizations full potential. Too many times I find that companies try to paint this as one is better than the other – when indeed, as you say, you “can’t have a great, high-performing company without both.”


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