Sometimes the world seems full of wretched ideas being played out in real time.
Well, the good news is they make for superb examples of what NOT to do!
I was in a local bank branch the other day and noticed a white board on the wall behind the tellers’ area. On the top, it said “WHO IS THE MOST SPIRITED TELLER?” Five tellers had their names on the far left side of the board and a chart with 25 or so boxes was set up to the right of their names. A certain number of the boxes were filled in indicating, I assume, some event of “Spiritedness” that the teller exhibited. Apparently, it was a race to the finish and some of the tellers were clearly doing better than others. Naturally, I assumed that the competition would result in some kind of reward for the winning teller.
When I first started creating bonus programs for my employees, I did a few things similar to this. But I have to tell you, some of the flaws became obvious immediately. So when I saw that white board at the bank, I had some instant reactions:
1) The contest must have been designed by a man. Oh, what a sexist assumption, but I am sure it is true. Guys love contests and competition. Especially when it is all male oriented so that we can trash talk and give the losers a bad time. That is half the fun, right? Well, not really. Usually the guys who love that competition are the ones who are already good at it. They are likely to win or finish a close second. Now for some guys, participating in a bowling tourney may sound like great competitive fun but ask those same jocks to enroll in a chess tournament and maybe the response will be cooler. In the case of the bank, 60% of the participants were female and their joy of competition was probably not the same as the men. I know, yes, just as some males would not enjoy the competition, there ARE some females who would love it, but, generally, they value cooperation over competition because of cultural issues and because, honestly, females always seem more mature than males. We guys are just a bit too into sports and doing battle and enjoying the fray.
2) Posting the results for everyone to see is always flattering to the winner and embarrassing to the losers; especially to whoever finishes in last place. Never, ever, put your employees in that position. Posting results of a contest where one Company Department takes on the others is marginally acceptable since it isn’t too personal to one employee but advertising who the losers are is never a good idea in any case. If many people or departments are competing, posting only the top 5 or 10 finishers is a fine way to reward and recognize individual performance without embarrassing those who finished in the lower rungs.
3) I never found out how someone earned a “spirited point” on the board, but my guess is that it was not an objective measurement. It may have included some judgment call on the branch manager’s part. Trust me, never create a bonus program where the result is based on subjective reasoning. Always base the bonus on specific events, acts or things you can count.
4) I couldn’t resist so I gently needled my teller about the contest. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. She was not doing particularly well according to the board, but it was also clear that she had a low opinion of the contest in the first place. What is important about that? Well, it tells me that management created the contest without very much consultation with the tellers. Here is my advice: Don’t do that. Ok, that was simplistic but, honestly, you need to get buy-in from the participants before you do it. If a high percentage of the “players” are not happy with the format, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
5) I asked my teller what the prize was for winning. Again, after the rolling of the eyes and a look of astonishment on her face, she said it was a $10 Starbuck’s card. And then she added, “As if that is going to motivate us!” OK, so now the unpopular contest that embarrasses over half the employees is trying to motivate them with a lame prize. This bonus program was doomed from the start.
Building an effective bonus program is difficult to do … but not impossible. It’s just that so many of the builders are starting from their own point of view and their own biases. To the designer of this bonus program, it all seemed like a fun, harmless game. But it was flawed on so many levels. When you are designing bonus programs, you need a blueprint to follow. It is a very achievable goal to design a quality bonus program when you know the steps. I spent 25 years failing miserably as I tried to design good bonus programs for my employees, but finally (just as even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while), I stumbled on the 8 steps that insure your bonus program will work every time. It is possible when you have a guide to follow. If you find yourself in the position of having to build a bonus program, contest or motivational exercise from scratch, be sure to think about the participants’ feelings first and get some feedback from them before launching.