Reward vs. Recognition

I’ve been reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive over the past few days, and have been enjoying his fresh perspective on how we can motivate ourselves and others.

The premise of the book is that the old way of carrot and stick motivation is no longer the optimal way to motivate, but to focus on intrinsic motivation.

In the book Pink sites a number of studies where participants are giving monetary incentives for a task and as a result performance and quality actually drop.

It got me thinking about the difference between Reward and Recognition.


When we try to motivate a person with some sort of reward whether it be money or a trip, we begin to place a set value on what they are doing. For example, if you would tell your employee sell x widgets and he will get a $100 bonus. You are thinking that this should be a great motivator. More output more money. Your employee begins to think a number of things like; if it takes x hours to sell these widgets then really my time value is worth more and the boss is underpaying me for my other work, or the boss thinks my effort in this is only worth $100 or if I want to make more money I will have to sell 500 more of these widgets a months just to make an extra $500.

By using this type of reward system you can actually be de-motivatin your employee.

As I write this I think about the training of wales. In the beginning the rope is at the bottom of the pool. Each time the wale swims over it he gets paid a fish. The rope is raised until its above the wale. He doesn’t get paid till he goes over the rope, but the pay is the same. Eventually he is jumping ten feet in the air over the rope but the pay is still the same one fish. If you would increase the amount of fish as you raised the rope this would create expectation in the wale, and if you would cut back his fish he would cut back his performance or eat you.

People are so much more complex so you can see how this reward system could be troublesome.



Recognition is about acknowledging the capabilities, talents, gifts in another person. It is saying that you have taken the time to notice that person and the value they offer. When you give them something, whether it is a card a book or a trip to Hawaii, it is a token a symbol of you recognizing what they offer.

The beauty of recognition is that it does not devalue the person, it doesn’t put a price on their actions. When you recognize a persons efforts it lifts them up and motivates them to push for further excellence, it motivates them to show you that they can be even more impressive.


Does this mean that you should eliminate rewards? No, I think that it is about creating a balance. You might have a bonus structure in your company as markers and goals for your employees to strive towards, but that is there for them to decide what they want to earn, but for the purposes of deep motivation you want to focus on recognition, valuing the person, their uniqueness and their gifts. Make them feel priceless and they well give you performance that is simply astounding.

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