How Awards Incentivize

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By Jas Singh

My first ever job in the City of London was working for a ultra fast paced recruitment firm. Boy was it high pressure – boiler room meets wall street. The classic sales floor – hundreds of people lined up on rows of desks touching elbow to elbow, each with only a computer screen and telephone for company.

I lasted 9 months before leaving to work for my current employer. To be honest I’m surprised I lasted that long – although I learned a tremendous amount, the culture wasn’t great and like many large sales organisations there was a pretty short term view, with little opportunity to learn. As a 20-something young graduate I didn’t really know what I was getting in for, but within days I could have told you the place was definitely not right for me.

The biggest reason I decided to stick it out was a surprise to me. It wasn’t the earning opportunity – although many people there had obviously done very well. It certainly wasn’t because I wanted to work for a big brand name. It wasn’t even the opportunity to even gain promotion or titles.

No, bizarrely the one thing that I found kept me interested and working hard was the opportunity to gain recognition. Like many sales organisations, the company had a well conceived “award” system for various areas. From “best rookie” to “most helpful team member” awards were contested every quarter and every year at the annual company year end. And I really wanted to win one.

Awards and prizes have long been proved to incentivize workers and increase performance. Every great leader understands that people work harder for recognition than money alone.

But why do awards work and why do they appeal to us?

Here are a few reasons why.

1) Humans are competitors

As social animals, we are born to compete. It’s ingrained – from prehistoric times when every male wanted to be leader of the tribe and every woman competed to be his choice of mate.

As civilisation has developed, our competitive nature has remained – all that has changed is how we fulfil this need. We competed to become the bravest warrior in the kingdom. Or the most beautiful lady in the land. Or the first to race into space. Nowadays competitive needs can be met by who is the richest, most famous or most powerful person in the company.

In recent times, competition has increased (arguably for the worst) due to the increased pressure on the educational system. Schools are now a business – with league tables, rankings and even minimum levels of performance. The youth of today are often constantly compared against each other driving further competition.

There is nothing wrong with competition as long as it is fair and constructive. Top performers deserve credit, but not because the rest “aren’t winners”.

2) We like to celebrate our success

Awards equal celebration. After working hard often for many years, there’s nothing like a party to celebrate our success. Just like we like to relax after a hard weeks work, we also like to celebrate after dedicating great portions of our lives to a profession.

Often awards are glamorised or held in exotic settings – sometimes even with significant suspense and publicity. The exposure to temporary “fame” is fun and a chance to let out hair down for once and enjoy it.

It’s a chance to be the actress, sports star or musician we all dreamed of being.

3) Awards make us feel special

We all crave our own identity and there is nothing like being told you’ve been chosen over everyone else. Often the award or the exact winning category is not as important as the actual feeling of being told you’re “the one”.

In fact, scientists have even found that winning even releases mixtures of hormones that make us feel good and enhance our state and performance. Amazingly, in extreme cases increased exposure to winning can even become addictive!

Whether it’s the father’s race or best CEO in America, winning feels special.

4) No one can take it away

I’ve been very lucky to meet some extremely successful people in my career so far. Entrepreneurs, high profile executives, thought leaders and managers – each with a great story and inspiring in their own way.

Yet one thing that a lot of people mention is how short-term business can be. You have to keep improving – success is often short lived before a competitor, internal issue or economic factor becomes a threat. It’s intense and everything can be lost quickly.

No one can take an away an award. It’s permanent and yours forever – whatever happens next or whoever else comes along.

It’s often why in the sports world many journalists argue that no-one can be called a true “great” unless they win the ultimate and most high profile prize on offer. If Tiger doesn’t win 18 majors, Jack Nicklaus will always be regarded as the best. If Lionel Messi doesn’t win a soccer world cup, he’ll never be rated as high as Diego Maradona.

The best can always be debated, but no one can argue who won.

Conclusion

If used correctly, awards can often drive performance more than any compensation scheme.

It’s a fine balance, but hiring managers need to ensure they are using recognition as a vital tool in their management armour.

What would you like to win?

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