March 25, 2006

Fake Plastic Coins

Like so many other work projects, it started with a bang and ended with a barely audible sputter.

Just over a year ago, I started my mission to bring behavior-based recognition to my workplace.

I feel compelled to tell the story here, because I'm trying to figure out what went right and what went wrong, and because I haven't given up yet. Someday, I hope to write a book about employee motivation, and I imagine a version of this experience will be included.

Background: Why Did I Bother?

I should point out that I work for a fundamentally good company, a place with decent pay (for most people), phenomenal benefits, and a plethora of mission statements and corporate values that place employee satisfaction high on the priority list.

That said, I don't think there's a single workplace that couldn't benefit from behavior-based recognition.

Think about a group of coworkers playing on a softball team. They high-five each other on the way to bat, give rousing cheers for good efforts, and go nuts when somebody hits a home run.

This is why people enjoy playing sports. Back at the office, that same group of coworkers might barely acknowledge each other's accomplishments.

"You resolved 70 cases last week. Let's make that the new minimum, and set your 'stretch goal' at 80 for next week. Mmmmkay?"

Not every manager tries to "motivate" his or her employees this way, but I've encountered some who do. The rarest managers are the softball-coach ones, the people who provide frequent positive reinforcement not just for the results, but for the behaviors that lead to the results.

Part 1: Tax Bucks

And so I created the coins.

I didn't have a staff of my own, but I had a corporate credit card, some free time, and a boss who agreed that we needed to do something to motivate the 80-some people in our department.

I bought all the plastic "counting chips" in the greater Reno area. I recruited a small army of employees to keep an eye out for positive behaviors and give a coin whenever they spotted somebody being polite to a customer on the phone, showing good printer etiquette, helping a coworker, etc.

Along with my team, I set up a prize cabinet in the break room. One coin could buy you a pack of gum. 25 coins could earn you a new-release DVD. The middle range included everything from fancy soap to whimsical mouse pads to candles.

It was a big hit, but I began to notice that all the energy was coming from me. When I stopped holding weekly meetings with the project team, the coins stopped flowing. I got discouraged. I wanted it to be something bigger than me. I wanted positive reinforcement to be a part of our office culture, not something I had to force.

After about six months, I handed the project over to a fresh group of people, and I took a job in another department.

Part 2: The Big Time
November through February is the busiest time of year, and I got pulled into the "Employee engagement" committee for busy season.

They were looking for a way to motivate our call center employees, who have one of the most difficult yet critical jobs around. A lot of ideas were tossed around:

"We could have weekly potlucks."

"We could give them little tsotchkes and toys with the company logo on them."

"We could bring in lunch every Friday."

I knew enough about human motivation to know that these things might be fun, but they were in no way motivating. The only behavior being reinforced with these schemes was the behavior of showing up, and even that assumes that the employee likes the food or gift being offered.

I decided to franchise my coin idea. I volunteered to visit each of our offices and set up a coin program like Tax Bucks.

And so began one of the most rewarding and satisfying periods of my career. I held meetings with the managers and supervisors at each office, and I shared my idea. They loved it. We chose program sponsors, and I joined them on the first prize shopping trip. I remember a moment - I was driving through southern California in a rental car, and I realized that I had never been so happy with my job. I couldn't believe I was being paid to do this. I actually cried.

Part 3: It Ends With a Sputter

When I returned from my goodwill coin tour, we were on track to have every office in my division using the coins in the same manner. All I had to do was set up meetings with the management in Reno.

Then I got the e-mail. It said something like this:

"We're going to opt out of the coins program. Thanks anyway."

And another one:

"We've got too much going on right now, we think this would be a distraction."

I tried to explain myself, to explain that it didn't take much time to hand someone a coin for doing a great job. I offered to manage all the prize purchasing and redemption. The decision had already been made.

I pitched the project to a couple other local managers, who took the coins from me, but never distributed any to their employees.

Yesterday, the higher-ups had the first meeting to rehash what went well and what didn't during our busy season. It was decided that next year, they won't bother with a universal employee recognition program for the whole division. Managers will be left on their own to decide when and if to recognize their employees.

Someone raised a concern that employees were being over-recognized.

Part 4: The Embers of Hope
It's hard not to feel discouraged. I poured my heart into a project that got dismissed with a single manager's whim, but I know that's how the corporate world works sometimes.

In yesterday's meeting, a manager from our southern California office raved about the coins program. She said the employees loved it, the supervisors loved it, and they were going to continue using it indefinitely.

I'm a trainer now, and earlier this week I taught a class of relatively new employees about the relatively dry topic of quarterly tax filing. I grabbed the slightly dusty stash of coins from my desk and gave one to each student who answered my questions correctly or made a helpful comment. I watched the class blossom from a group of bored employees to an engaged, enthusiastic bunch. Even before I opened the cabinet to give them their prizes, I overheard them raving about the class.

"That was so much fun!"

It made me love my job again.

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