OB insights: Rewarding the effort, not just the outcome

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Back in one of my Organisational Behaviour classes called the Psychology of Management, we learned about how to motivate people the right way. Often we focus on the final outcome and don’t value as much the effort required to get there. That’s understandable, because usually what matters in the end, is the end.

But if you don’t see this as a once-off endeavour but something that repeats itself, then you need to lead with a different mindset. Rather than flogging the horse that isn’t able to win first prize, valuing the effort put into preparing for the race is important, too. If you think about it, in any competition, there is one winner - everyone else is second best or worse. Even if you do win, you can’t do it all the time.

So, all factors being equal, you have a higher chance of being disappointed. Some are resilient and soldier on, while others may grow discouraged at their lack of results and recognition for their efforts, and wither away. However, if you recognise the effort put in, you encourage them to try harder - and with renewed determination and practice, they may get better the next time round.

One classmate asked our professor AF whether he could apply this teaching to his own kids. He had a son taking part in a swimming contest the following day. His son had been training very hard but deep in his heart, he knew that there was another boy who was much better than anyone else. He knew his son would only come in second, at best. What should he do? The professor gave his advice: Reward the effort.

The following week I met my classmate and asked him how the swimming contest turned out. He replied, “My son came in second, and I said, ‘Good effort’.”

Amazingly, it’s been nearly 3 years since we had that lesson but it’s one thing that’s been etched in my memory. It’s something that still isn’t done enough in workplaces. Employees can put their hearts into their work, only to find out that it wasn’t considered good enough - or, they may simply have neglected to dot an ‘i’ or cross a ‘t’. And think about it - that is far more deflating to an enthusiastic employee than to one who is already emotionally detached from his work. Ironically, by punishing them for not meeting the goal and ignoring the effort they put in, you alienate the people who care more for your company and customers. People then de-sensitise themselves and put in minimal effort, or look for a new job.

So I’m all for rewarding the effort and not just the result. Of course, the effort can’t be a blind one - it must be put in the right direction as well. But then it would also be your job to guide people back to the right path and cheer them on.

Let’s bear all this in mind as we go about our daily lives, as coworkers, bosses of other people, clients, mothers and fathers. Onward!

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