Eight Ways to use Reward Power that Don’t Require Cash

Reward Power is one of the best ways for leaders to influence people to move in the direction they want.  Most people tend to think of this power of reward in terms of money, and money can be a good tool.  But often there isn’t much to give, and surprisingly, it is often not the most effective way to reward someone.

By the end of this post, you will be equipped with eight ways to reward someone effectively that don’t involve a lot of money, but will have your people pulling hard for the team.

Reward Power

Reward Power:  It’s Not About the Money

As a leader, the power to Reward is one of the best tools on your utility belt.  But if you think only in terms of monetary rewards, you will quickly run into a few problems.

  • Problem 1:  You might not have money to give; whatever you do have is sure to be less than you think you need.
  • Problem 2:   While getting more money is nice, in a sense, you are bribing people for performance. They may work hard for a while, but their commitment is temporary, tied to your funding resources; when the money runs out, it’s back to where you were; you haven’t changed their behavior.  There’s a great article about the down-side of monetary incentives in the Harvard Business Review.
  • Problem 3:  Other things are more important.  A brief look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will show you that basic needs like having a sense of belonging come before higher level things like esteem (associated with big money).  Once you have an income sufficient to meet your basic needs like shelter and security, you could argue that tapping into the human need for belonging and self-worth is a much more potent way to motivate and reward.  I thought Daniel Pink had some great things to say about this; my thoughts on his book Drive.

OK, so if money is off the table for any or all of the reasons listed above, what can I use to reward people?  The answer is:  anything that others find of value, especially if it is of social value.  And your creativity is the only limit.  So to help you get started, here are eight ways to tap into the reward power base that build on individual belonging and don’t require a stack of Benjamans.

1. Say a Good Word

Sometimes a brief word of praise is all you need.  If people look up to you or take pride in their work, taking a moment to affirm the good work that they are doing can be very motivational because it confirms their contribution (and belonging) to the team.  And giving praise doesn’t need to take very long at all.

Sometimes a brief word of praise is all you need. Click To Tweet

In The One Minute Manager, authors Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson give a very simple formula to follow that can be extremely effective for giving praise like this:

  1. Praise people immediately after the event
  2. Tell them what they did right – be specific
  3. Tell them how good that makes you feel, and how it helps the team and its members
  4. Pause briefly, allow a moment of silence to let them feel how important this is
  5. Encourage them to do more of the same
  6. Shake hands or touch them in some brief way that show you support their success on the team

The process might sound a little hokey, but it really is effective.  Be sure to gain and hold eye contact, and make the hand shake firm.  Practice this on a friend – you’ll be surprised.

For even greater impact, you can say those words praise publicly to the whole group.  Get everyone’s attention, call out the person, say specifically what he did that was good, why it was important to the team, and say thanks.  Look him in the eye, shake his hand, maybe get people to clap afterwards.  Social approval and belonging.  Done.

2.  Write Them a Good Word

Ever get a school paper back with a gold star on it and maybe a quick note of praise.  Made you feel good right?  And all it cost the teacher was a quick moment of time and a tiny bit of ink.

Reward power using a written note There are several ways to reward with the written word.  A simple note attached to whatever paperwork you are giving them can do wonders, and you would be surprised how many people will hold onto a yellow sticky with a nice note on it for years.  I have one from my boss back in 1987!  That guy was awesome. (or maybe I’m just a little weird like that….).  A 3×5 card on which you write out a brief note of thanks can also work – use their name, be specific about what you liked and its importance to the team and a “thanks” or “great job, keep it up!”

A pre-made thank you card is another form of this method – get a thoughtful one, write a short note about how you valued what that person did, maybe get the whole team to sign it.  These can be great when marking the end of a special project or event.

You can go more formal with this, too.   You can make a simple certificate of appreciation in a couple minutes using your own skills, or borrow free templates from the internet.  This web site at Office.com has many PowerPoint-based certificate design templates you can modify and print free of charge – pick the design you like, modify it, save as a PDF, then print. To dress it up, use some heavier gage paper, and leave space for a couple signatures of important people.  To go all the way with this one, put it in a simple frame and present in public.

These notes, cards and certificates signify approval from the leader and the group, and are strong evidence of belonging, which is why people like to display them.  It feels good.

3.  Give Them Something Symbolic

Another way to reward someone is with a symbolic token of some sort.  Often you hear about Coaches awarding the game ball to the Most Valuable Player Same idea here.

They can be serious, like a ribbon or trophy.  They can be semi-serious, like a book with a note written inside, or a framed photo of the whole team with a personal note on the back.

They can even be fun – maybe you present a “Squeegee of Power” to each of your leaders at the car wash fund raiser.  It’s just a squeegee on the end of a broom handle, but you might get a few laughs even while you are in the process of rewarding your leaders for stepping up to lead a car-wash team.  Everybody wins!

With the Scouts I work with, we came up with the “Golden Spatula” as a reward for cooking the best meal.  The  reward has taken on a life of its own and we’ve been eating well ever since.

If the symbolic token is given based on the vote of others, so much the better – it’s a solid sign of social approval.

4.  Remove a Limitation

Another way to reward is to remove a limitation.  Did your parents ever say that you could stay up later on a particular night if you got your homework done on time?   That’s the concept here.

I don’t know what kind of limitations you are operating under, but the concept kind of speaks for itself.  If you are in business attire all the time, maybe declare a casual day as a reward.  Recently I came across a forum post where the person was complaining about a requirement to wear safety goggles whenever using the stapler.  Amazing.  Maybe they have earned the right to use a stapler with out them.

Whatever the limitation, if you have the power to lift it or can get others to lift it for you based on good performance, there you go!  Just make sure what you are doing makes sense.  If you’re working with a table saw, maybe you want to keep the safety goggles on.

5.  Give a Privilege

Instead of removing a negative, add a positive:  give someone a privilege.

Maybe you have a sweet spot in the parking lot where you park your car; you could give the privilege of using it to someone else for a month as a reward.  Or maybe there is limited seating at the main meeting table, but you could bump up someone from the peanut gallery so they’ll have a better chance to be heard.

Think about what kinds of privileges you control and what you can offer up as a reward.  If it happens to be a perk reserved to you that you pass on to one of your team mates, all the better – they see you serving the team by giving up something you could keep for yourself.  That’s a double win.

Speaking of serving, another way to do this might be to personally bring the first cup of coffee (or beverage/snack of choice) every morning for a week to your top performer or the winning team.  It costs almost nothing, but stretches the reward out and does it in a fun public way.

6. Give Time

You might be able to give the gift of time.  It could be time off from the next project or just releasing somebody early from a particular task, as in, “first one done gets to go home early.”

Or it could be face time – a chance to hang out with you, since you are so charming and likable; maybe combine it with a symbolic gift; you say, “Hey, let me buy you a cup of coffee as a way to say thanks for coming up with a great fund raising idea.”

7. Give Choice

You could also reward someone by giving them more choices than others might have.  Maybe when the next project comes up, your top performer gets to choose first what she wants to do, and leave everyone else to figure out who has to do the other, less savory tasks.  Or give them first shot at the work schedule, or whatever other things you control.  They’ll appreciate it!

8. Hold an Event

And finally, an eighth way to reward is to hold an event.  This would be especially good for rewarding a group.

Maybe decide that the whole group will meet for frozen yogurt.  Or you’ve all heard about a teacher who pledges to cut his hair off if the students reach a certain goal – make it an event, and let  your heroes take turns with the razor.

Or, if you don’t want to lose your golden locks, find something else fun to do – go putt-putt golfing as a group, linkup at a street fair for a few hours, go on a hike together – whatever you think the group would find fun and engaging.  Be sure at some point to gather everyone together and remind them why you are getting together, thank them for their efforts, and encourage them to have fun.

Enjoying a reward as a group is a great way to strengthen the bonds of the team and a sense of belonging for the individual members.

It’s About Social Approval

You as a leader have many sources of power and influence with your team.  One of the most potent is reward power.  But thinking of reward only in terms of money is missing a great opportunity.  With a little understanding and imagination, you can use any or all of the eight ways we’ve talked about to reward people and teams in a way that is much more effective than simply bribing them with a check.

When you tap into their inherent need for a sense of belonging and social approval, you make it more personal, more meaningful, and more lasting.  Your team becomes tighter, works better and harder together, and your vision gets a little closer every day.  And that’s what leadership is all about.

Reward Power is one of six main sources of power for the leader.  Be sure to read about the others and add them to your tool kit.

Lead on!

Question:  What creative, low-cost ways to use reward power have you seen?  What made them effective?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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