Beyond Bonuses: The Power of The Non-Monetary Employee Recognition

Written by Vladimir Tosic

Corporate and Startup Leader. Culture builder. Marketer and product designer.

November 29, 2023

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No, it’s not all about the money. When most people think about „the grind“ all they see is a bunch of people huddled into rows of cubicles just waiting to check out and pick up their paycheck. It’s tempting to think of workers as people who are only in it for the money. While this is certainly true for a portion of the workforce it is in no way the rule. Those who only view their job as a source of income are most probably not going to be the people who will make a significant difference in your business goals.

Putting it bluntly – the people who truly make a difference in your projects are not the people who spend most of their days counting down the minutes until the clock strikes five. It’s the high achievers that make a difference, and they are not inherently motivated by money. That is not to say that you shouldn’t pay your people fairly but the data shows that once employees pass a certain financial threshold that allows them to live comfortably they will focus on more than earning six figures.


What is more important than money?

“Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you and inside of your work”, said Clayton Christensen.

That said, it doesn’t come as a surprise that top motivators tend to be: Fulfilling and challenging work, and a healthy and stimulating work environment. Money is indeed important but it is not the most important thing.

One of the things that shows up as a top motivator is surprisingly simple and very easy to overlook – recognition.


When bonuses backfire

People love to be recognized, so much so, that they will seek out new opportunities if they feel like they are not being valued. Managers frequently think that giving bonuses will make up for permanent engagement in their worker’s well-being. Data shows a stark difference. Not only do bonuses not work long-term but they can contribute to the problem. Bonuses serve as a temporary boost of morale and are usually just a temporary fix, this method can also mask deeper problems because doling out bonuses may give the leadership a false sense of taking the employee off of their list.

After all – they gave them money, so they must be happy, right? Wrong.

Human nature teaches us an important lesson. People get used to good things fairly quickly and what was once an award is now an expectation. If a worker gets a bonus every time they do a good job, and then one day they do something awesome but are skipped over for additional payment you are in for a rude awakening when you find them angry and unmotivated. Somewhere along the way they stopped going above and beyond because they valued their work, they were in it for the bonus.


The power of recognition

Recognition is another name we use for a very powerful motivator – respect. Respect for the time, effort, and skill necessary for success. Respect is the reason why people go the extra mile, it is the reason why they follow leaders in and out of companies and it is the reason why, all things considered, they are most likely to keep going when the going gets tough.

People who are intrinsically motivated will keep giving their best, not because of the money or rewards but because giving up will make them look like quitters – and lose the recognition and respect of their peers.


Why recognition works better than money

We all work for money, hence, everyone will eventually get it. We signed a contract after all. Recognition, on the other hand, is not guaranteed and that makes it exclusive. It makes it a challenge. It makes it a prize. While money is useful there is something deeply impersonal about it. It comes and goes. Recognition, if done well, speaks directly to our character. More important than being rich is being useful, and we have thousands of volunteers all around the world proving this theory.

While money gives us perks, recognition gives us meaning, it makes us feel like what we are doing is making a difference, and given that we spend half our lives at work it comes as close to purpose as one gets in today’s world.

While money can bring a brief sense of satisfaction and make our lives easier, recognition makes them more meaningful. It gives us validation and helps boost self-esteem and this feeling tends to be far more permanent than using a bonus on a new pair of shoes. After all, money can get you new shoes, but recognition puts a spring in your step and makes you want to keep walking.

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