It’s the Performer, Not the Perk: Don’t Blame Incentive Programs for Sub-Par Work

Written by Paul Marchildon, on July 10, 2014.

But if I offer free gym memberships or flex time, people are going to take advantage of them! It’s absolutely true. With any incentive program, there is the possibility that employees will take advantage. If you offer free lunch, some of them will actually eat it; if you implement a “Cut Outta Here Early on Friday” summer policy, some of them will actually excuse themselves after that free lunch. To which I say, “Great! Give them promotions. I, and Leisureologists the world over, salute them!” You want employees to take advantage of incentives. If you’re having an issue with subpar performance, look at the performer, not the perk.

Incentives Improve Performance

Study after study confirms that leisure – from exercise to meditation to vacation time – improves productivity, increases engagement, and boosts performance. Taking advantage of these types of incentives helps people do their work more efficiently, more effectively, and at a higher level.

So, when someone hits the gym every day for three hours and produces sloppy, second-rate work, what’s the problem? Hint: it’s not the treadmill or kettle bells. The real issue is that he’s just not performing well.

Why? Maybe he’s not in the right job. Maybe he doesn’t have the right skill set. Maybe he’s not interested in his work or motivated to do it to the best of his ability. There are a lot of maybes, and none of them have to do with how much he can bench press or how fast he can run a mile.

The only way to find out, and to resolve the situation, is to sit down and talk with him. You want him to continue taking advantage of the gym, of flextime, or other benefits you offer. At the same time, you need him to up his game.

Blaming the problem on incentives is essentially saying, “You’re flexing your flex time a little too much, and we know we gave you this gym membership, but we don’t really want you to use it.” Offering the incentives didn’t cause the problem; revoking them is not going to solve it.

A Culture of Trust

The key is to create culture in which results are never measured by time spent at work. Instead, they should be measured against business objectives. I’ve never cared where my people did their work or at what hours, as long as it was done when and at the level I needed. If it took them 30 hours at the office to complete a project, fine. If it took them 10 hours, most of which were spent in a coffee shop, great. In either case, they met the objectives.

In cultures like this, people can’t hide. They’re accountable to each other, and if they’re not pulling their weight, it’s readily apparent. In some large organizations, people can fly under the radar; they might exploit incentives simply because they can get away with it. When that happens, the perks aren’t to blame. I’d suggest that the organization lacks clear, measurable business objectives – or the ability to hold their people accountable for them.

It sounds dull, which is completely out of character for me, but you need to have measurable objectives, both in your personal life and your work. What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? As a leader, your job is to help your people stay in touch with their objectives and remain accountable for their work.

If that’s not happening, it doesn’t matter if someone’s spending three hours at the gym or three minutes. You might as well blame poor performance on the color of his tie or on his choice of soft drink.

The employees who really take advantage of incentives? Those are the ones you want to point out to others, to say, “Hey guys, look; these things are beneficial, and they’re going to help you like they’ve helped them.” They’re your proof that a leisureology culture delivers results. With incentives, the risk isn’t that people will take advantage – it’s that they won’t.

Paul Marchildon

Paul Marchildon

A self-proclaimed Leisureologist and Motivational Speaker, Paul Marchildon applies his vast expertise in human engagement to help leaders create more productive, effective organizations. Building on an influential career as a pioneer in employee incentive and loyalty programs, strategic creative communications, social media and mobile marketing, Paul provides insight into the advantages of incorporating a leisure culture in the "work" place. He is past president of Society of Incentive and Travel Executives’ (Site) Canadian Chapter and founder of Atlantis Creative Group (now part of Maritz Canada). He is one of a select group of Canadians who have received the Certified Incentive Travel Executive (CITE) designation.