It’s always in the darkest days that we learn the most valuable and memorable lessons. Years ago, I led a small sales team plagued by organizational inefficiencies. It was the end of Q2 and everyone was frustrated that the senior leadership team was still making adjustments to the sales goals and comp plans. This meant Q1 commissions hadn’t been paid out on schedule, and it was likely that Q2 commissions wouldn’t arrive on time either. On a leadership call, one sales director asked “how do you suggest I keep my team engaged and motivated when they don’t know what their goal is, let alone when they’ll be paid for the sales they’ve made so far this year?!” It’s a question we’d all been asking ourselves, but I’ll never forget the answer he received. “Well, perhaps you could throw a really reasonable pizza party.”
Dead silence. A team of 11 extroverted, opinionated sales directors were rendered speechless. I don’t know how long the silence actually lasted, but it felt like minutes. And then she continued “Well, you know, keep it reasonable, because we don’t have budget for this. But just a few pizzas could really help remind them how much we appreciate them.”
Again, dead silence. I dropped off the call out of sheer frustration and disbelief, as did many of my fellow colleagues. That’s when the group chat messages went wild. “What’s a ‘reasonable’ pizza party? Single topping and no extra cheese? If only we could order extra cheese….that’s what we really need to re-engage a sales team with no commissions. Can we get breadsticks or would that be considered excessive?” From then on, every time one of the sales team managers announced a win, we all responded with “Great job! Extra toppings for you!”
In the end, I chose not to give my team a pizza party, and I stand by my decision to this day.
Rewards can be effective and drive motivation only when the basic needs of the employee have been met. They cannot take the place of fulfilling your minimal obligations as an employer (like compensating appropriately). When rewards are used to distract from organizational failures, it has the opposite effect and fools no one. And yet, organizations make this mistake time and time again. A colleague of mine called in sick the other day because she couldn’t face her employees whose colleagues had just been laid off on a day when the company was sponsoring a field day. As she said “snow cones don’t mask the bad taste of recent lay-offs and questionable use of budget.”
When it comes to employee engagement, I could argue that budget is no excuse. The cost of doing nothing (and risking costly employee turnover) is greater than the cost of strategic employee engagement endeavors (i.e. training and development, benefits, updating technology, etc). However, employee engagement initiatives don’t always require a budget.
In the instance of my team, I opted out of the pizza party and opted into a transparent conversation. I sat in a conference room and explained the honest reasons why goals and comp plans were being delayed. I expressed my own frustration with the process and shared the ways I was trying to influence the process. And then I sat and listened. I listened to each team member’s concerns and frustrations. I offered information and answers where I could, and offered empathy and understanding where I lacked an honest answer. And when everyone had shared everything on their mind, I thanked them. I thanked them for their hard work, continued commitment, loyalty, patience, and understanding. I thanked them for trusting me enough to share their frustrations openly, and I thanked them for trusting me to fix the problem. It was one of the more difficult conversations I’d experienced as a leader, but somehow it actually brought the team together in a way I hadn’t expected. It took another full month for commissions and goals to be finalized, but the sentiment on the team was different. It was the kind of relationship change that pepperoni and breadsticks can’t buy.