A staff incentive scheme needs to be designed like a ladder

Your staff incentive scheme: What you wanted, and what you got instead

Your road to staff incentive scheme disappointment will be paved with the very best of intentions. That’s because the desire to provide incentives comes from a genuine place; you want to excite staff with rewards instead of crudely insisting employees work harder because they’ve been told to.

But, there’s a good chance you won’t get what you want from the scheme. It’s no reason to be downbeat, it happens a lot. What you expect to see from a scheme just isn’t always what it delivers. This article will jog you through what you wanted, what you got instead, and how you can improve in the future.

What you wanted, what you got instead, and what you can do about it

You wanted to see if your top performers could do more

You wanted to know if there was another level of performance that could be eked out of your biggest stars.

What you got instead

Even with new incentives on offer, the most prolific achievers in your company generally held the line. There wasn’t a measurable, sustained uptick in effort or achievement from your top guns.

What you could have done

Your big-shot staff aren’t likely to find another level of effort. They’re already your hard-chargers, they’re already obsessed with hitting their deadlines and targets. Personal pride and drive won’t permit them be anything else.

They’re also conditioned to expect any OTE and rewards you already dish out. You can’t rightfully withhold those rewards now and then ask for more effort to get them back. It’s a betrayal of your relationship, and more than likely will actually hurt morale. There’s no reason to mess your team’s biggest assets about for a marginal gain.

Rather than focus on core role KPIs and effort, focus on how they can improve the intangibles around the office. Measurable ideas like supporting lower-performing staff, finding efficiencies, getting clients to rely less on your customer support teams, running training for other staff in the company.

You wanted your lowest performers to start achieving

Every workplace has staff that are, at least outwardly, happy with below-average performance. You know they can do more, and you thought incentives would bring that out of them.

What you got instead

Nothing. Your lowest performing employees showed no reaction whatsoever to your staff incentive scheme.

What you could have done

To be blunt, what good is an incentive when an employee has no intention of doing any work beyond what’s required?

You could set the bar as high or as low as you like, it doesn’t make any difference to an actively disengaged, indifferent employee. Changing the behaviour of actively disengaged employees needs more than just the promise of an incentive.

You need to disassemble the reasons why they’re so uninterested in your business, then find a way to reignite passion for their work. After that, you can start thinking about how incentives will keep them energised.

You wanted average staff to turn it up a notch

Your plan was to introduce a system that incentivises the bulk of your staff to produce more outstanding performances, more often.

What you got instead

A mediocre uptake, with a fair few staff getting interested in the scheme. But, the effort didn’t sustain for any serious period. The vast majority became disengaged and dropped off.

What you could have done

Make sure an incentive scheme doesn’t get drowned out by your highest performers scooping up all the rewards. Your scheme needs to feel achievable, offer the chance to build towards bigger rewards, without getting drowned out by the top dogs in the department.

Which brings us to an important point.

The battle of the bulge is a battle worth fighting

Ultimately, middle performers are where you should be focusing the bulk of your incentive efforts. The top workers produce the numbers without your instruction, and the bottom need a different remedy entirely. Your middle achievers make up most of your staff, but they’re the easiest group to forget about because they chug along happily, achieving their targets.

One of the biggest problems with intensely KPI-focused incentive schemes is that the thresholds and rewards can be hoovered up too quickly by your top performers. On one hand, it’s great that your top performers are doing so well. On the other hand, your middle performers can feel alienated and disinterested in those incentives.

An incentive scheme needs to continually provide an opportunity to be rewarded for excellence, while still working toward larger, tantalising, rewards. When rewards are too frequent, they become a blur. When they’re too sparse, they feel unachievable.

Think of incentives like a ladder. Looking up at a ladder, it’s impossible to just reach up and grab the top rung. You have to climb one rung at a time. Even worse though, the very top of the ladder can never be reached if the same two or three people are always up there already. If you don’t think you can reach the top, you’re not likely to even start climbing.

Use achievable, repeatable milestones. Employ a mix of core KPIs and less tangible workplace improvements. And, crucially, make sure you structure them to furnish all your staff with the chance to be rewarded for excellence.