Rewarding People For Results Is a Mistake

Beware of people who say things like, “I’m the sort of person who likes to get things done.” They almost always make this remark when trying to impress an interviewer, colleague, or manager. The implication is that while all the losers around them are busy being losers, these are the stars of your organization. Often, though, they’re just jerks, or walking clichés at the very least.

The reality is that all of us like to accomplish things. That’s why I hate the term results-oriented to describe anyone.

Know what else I hate?: “Best practices.” So you can imagine how I feel when I hear pundits, executives, and everyone else preach that a best practice for building a results-oriented workplace is to recognize employees who produce… results.

It’s a line that so many people repeat so many times that it’s easy to mistake it for a fact.

It’s actually an alternative fact, an opinion disfigured into a recommendation because it makes intuitive sense. If this seems intuitive to you, too, your intuition is fooling you.

Rewarded for luck

A while back, I spoke to Michael Mauboussin, Credit Suisse’s head of global financial strategies and author of The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing. He explained something that you probably already feel in your gut but might be too panicky, egotistical, or deluded to admit: Many of your achievements — the same ones that earn you praise (or punishment) — are largely beyond your control. Mauboussin explained:

There’s a continuum of things that are pure luck on one end and pure skill on the other. When your outcomes are truly a reflection of the work that you’re doing, a results-oriented evaluation is not unreasonable, like in manufacturing, which is very skills-oriented. But things like launching a successful R&D project are inherently probabilistic, with a lot of randomness and luck to them. There are profound influences that are hard to anticipate.

And get this: The higher you are on the ladder, the greater the role that luck plays in your work. You know what else grows with each rung? Compensation. All of which means that a four-leaf clover increasingly determines what you earn in cash and recognition as you move up a hierarchy.

A squiggly line

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink writes about algorithmic vs heuristic tasks. Jobs that include the former are usually lower down in an enterprise, often involve repetitive work, and feature obvious causation between input and output. Recognizing algorithmic employees for their results makes sense.

On the other hand, heuristic jobs — the majority of white-collar work — demand creativity and experimentation and include tons of variables that complicate drawing clear lines between cause and effect. The line between results and recognition is consequently just as squiggly. So why draw it at all?

Input vs output

If it seems counter-intuitive not to recognize people for their achievements, it’s only because we’re not recognizing what it truly means to achieve. Achieving is about engaging in the process of work. It’s about making smart decisions, innovating with new approaches, striving to solve problems.

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But hey, you may be thinking, that’s how you get results too, so why not just reward people for results?

Because the same process is also how you fail to get results (though a premortem can help with that). Ask yourself: Despite your or a coworker’s best efforts, is it reasonable to expect different outcomes? If your answer is yes — and it will be yes — then rewarding people based on output seems silly. Worse, it can be dangerous, leading to all sorts of questionable actions, unethical behaviors, and Enron.

What’s not silly? Recognizing employees for input instead of output. Of course, most organizations say that they already do this, but in reality, companies want to know how you got your work done only when you could not get your work done.

Redefining recognition

The good news is that you don’t need some corporate policy to tell you how to think and act when it comes to recognizing employees. Praise people when they go about their work well. Congratulate colleagues even when their worthy projects fail. Celebrate teammates not for, but despite their mistakes when they’ve otherwise done a great job.

Rethink what it means to do a great job in the first place. Good results and good work are not synonymous. Your results do not define your work. They are a product of it.

Appreciating input will also help align recognition efforts with all the other competencies you talk about—autonomy, creativity, risk-taking, etc. The great irony is that rewarding for behaviors rather than results can lead to better outcomes. In other words, business results are important—just not as a foundation for recognition.

Vadim Liberman is a talent strategist, pundit, and advocate—a chief renegade officer advancing how we think, work, and live. With an expansive background in employee engagement, internal communications, and business journalism, Vadim mixes skepticism and hope to challenge conventions and create better workplaces. Check out his blog,

Currently, Vadim is a practice leader at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that embraces humanity in business to build emotional resonance with enterprise software and services brands. Prior, Vadim managed talent engagement at Prudential, where he often battled bureaucracy and sometimes even won. Before that, he was senior editor at TCB Review, the thought-leader magazine of The Conference Board, where he explored ideas and opinions related to business management and the myriad ways that leaders fail their organizations.

Vadim also co-organizes and speaks regularly at DisruptHR events, where he has injected Madonna, cats, and ’80s television characters into presentations to inform and energize HR and other business executives. Contact him at .


7 Comments on “Rewarding People For Results Is a Mistake

  1. One has to create luck…it just doesn’t happen. Not sure I understand the main idea of this article…?

  2. Maybe we should adopt the practice used with children and reward showing up.

    Pink, the former speech writer, relied on research from student experiments. He changed few business practices. Luck is certainly an issue but it does not explain the success of organizations in any sector. As long as profits are important, rewards will go to those who are responsible.

  3. Thanks for sharing great article! every boss should think about changing corporate policy.

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