Suppose you gave a party and nobody came? That's more or less what happened to one software company when its manager of recognition programs decided to reward its engineers for a new, highly successful system they had developed.

“She created ‘Celebrate Engineers Day,’” recalls Joseph Mancusi, president of the Center for Organizational Intelligence, Sterling, Va. “She rented a fancy riverboat and set up a mock gambling parlor in the main hall. There was also a huge gallery of games, with prizes and drawings galore, plus an elaborate buffet. It was colorful, festive, and fun.”

It was also a bust.

Nearly half the company's engineers didn't show up, and those who came didn't stay long. It just wasn't their thing. “Engineers are not like salespeople, who love to schmooze and enjoy being rewarded in public,” says Mancusi. “Their mindset is more like, ‘Give me the money and leave me alone.’”

Don't Do Unto Others …

The most honest attempt to reward an employee can misfire if a manager doesn't take into account that individual's personality. “Reward programs fail because managers follow the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” says Mancusi. In other words, managers assume that their workers want to be rewarded the same way managers want to be rewarded.

That's not always true.

“The Golden Rule is a self-centered rule,” says Tony Alessandra, the La Jolla, Calif. — based speaker and author of The Platinum Rule. “It's like a salesman who assumes his product is right for his prospect without considering the prospect's needs.”

Categorize and Conquer

Tailoring rewards to employees' personalities is hardly new. In the 1970s, Alessandra came up with a behavior classification system based on four basic styles.

The first group, Directors, are goal-oriented, take-charge individuals who tend to be motivated by money, or anything that shows they're winners, such as a car. The second group, Socializers, are “more open and more relationship-oriented,” he says, and they like status symbols — tangible things, such as a trophy. Thinkers, the third group, are “analytical, systematic people who enjoy problem-solving and appreciate learning activities.” They would be motivated by an educational trip, for example. And finally, Relaters, who get the most pleasure out of trips with a loved one. Relaters are motivated by a memento, such as a framed photo of their team.

Unfortunately, too few companies use these determinants to customize recognition and rewards, according to Allesandra and other experts.

“Most companies take the easy way out in rewarding their employees,” says Jim Cathcart, author of The Acorn Principle. “Instead of considering people's differences and rewarding them accordingly, they look for blanket solutions because they'd rather not work that hard.”

Value Judgment

Cathcart contends that it is vital to understand someone's value system to know what drives that person. He has identified seven “natural values”: sensuality, empathy, wealth, power, aesthetics, commitment, and knowledge.

“If I know someone's top value is knowledge and his last value is power, I'm not going to give him a corner office or a title as a reward. I'm going to give him an opportunity to learn or to use his knowledge — by attending a research seminar, taking a course, or teaching other employees.”

Cathcart also refers to peoples' work “velocity.” Low-velocity people follow the philosophy that play should be work and work, play — they are motivated by immediate needs or the needs of others. High-velocity people enjoy work as long as it moves them toward their goals — they are self-motivated. And a moderate velocity person enjoys a balance between work and play.

Dee Hansford, president of Dee Hansford Consulting, a Winter Garden, Fla., company that creates recognition programs, gives an example of a client who has done this successfully. “She asks questions. ‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘What was fun?’ And she listens to the answers,” says Hansford. “She keeps a file of things employees do well, and she will match work strengths and personalities.”

Hansford's client hosted an off-site event to celebrate when the group met all its deliverables. Among the team members was a woman who loved to spend weekends baking cookies with her daughter. “She gave her a cookie platter, a decorating kit, and a card with specific messages about her contributions, as well as comments about how she admired the woman's parenting skills,” says Hansford. “All her messages are about her employees, their families, and what they value.”

There's always a chance that you can de-motivate an employee by being completely out of touch with what matters to them. This was the case with another of Hansford's clients, whom she describes as “a high-powered financial planner — a real type-A personality.

“She was aggravated because she'd rewarded her administrative assistant with an expensive gift certificate for a massage at a high-end spa,” she recalls. “Three months had passed, and the assistant hadn't used it. I asked her why she'd given the woman a massage. ‘Who wouldn't love a massage?’ she said. ‘Well, you may value it,’ I replied, ‘but you need to find out if your assistant does.’”

A few days later, her client told her she had been right. Not only did this woman feel uncomfortable getting a massage, she felt guilty about having a pricey massage alone rather than doing something with her family. What she wanted more than anything was some time off with her children.

Janelle Brittain, head of the Dynamic Performance Institute in Chicago, sees people as being motivated by six things: inclusion, recognition, rewards, accomplishment, altruism, and control. “Most people are more a mix of several types,” she says.

The exception is control — over your workload, your schedule, work/life balance — which, she says, can be more powerful than money. “Plenty of people would give up a raise or promotion to have more control over their job.”

For example, one of Brittain's clients, a technical consulting firm, wanted a way to induce its consultants to stay with the company. “When we analyzed what was important to them, we discovered that a high percentage wanted more flexibility and control over their schedules. So we allowed them to adopt flex time, as long as they got their work done.”

Different Strokes …

It's even possible to customize — somewhat — rewards that companies give out on a large-scale basis. Sally McCarthy, recognition and rewards manager at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., categorizes employees by their job titles. “My team supports about 10,000 people, and I segment them in three ways. One group is our sales force. The second group, our operations people, are those in the back office who fulfill and service our loans. Third are our project managers, the enablers.”

She finds out what motivates them in a completely unscientific way: listening. “We go out to the sites and offices to do ‘associate listening,’” she says. “We listen to management, too, because associates often discuss their motivators with their managers.” She also conducts associate focus groups on the phone. “We ask them very open-ended questions: ‘What makes you come to work every day?’ ‘Why do you stay at Bank of America?’”

After doing focus groups for the past three years, she can generalize a bit. “Recognition from management and peers is probably the top motivator,” she says. “Time off is also very motivating. Gift certificates are big for our operations people. Our project managers respond to certificates and recognition from senior executives.”

Although the technique works for some managers, it's not enough to make decisions based solely on the type of work people do, without factoring in behavioral differences.

One longstanding way to differentiate personalities is the introvert-extrovert divide. “Introverts should be rewarded differently than extroverts,” says Bob Nelson, CMI columnist and president of Nelson Motivation, San Diego. “If someone is shy, the last thing you want to do is put him or her in a position of public praise.” He recalls a company that was giving one worker a plaque for perfect attendance. “He was so petrified he'd have to speak, he called in sick.”

With people working from twentysomething to ninetysomething, attention is focused on motivating across generations. “Boomers — and I'm one of them — are people for whom the word ‘workaholic’ was invented,” says Hansford. “So you need to give us messages that we're important to the organization's success, that our contribution is unique, and we're worthy.” Her reward suggestions? The latest computer, a parking spot, or even lunch with the CEO.

The Flip Side

And what about the flip side? Shouldn't employees be able to reward their leaders according to their personalities?

“During Y2K, a technical group at an IT company worked through the New Year's Eve weekend to make sure all aspects of a client's system were backed up and crash-proof,” says Hansford. The technicians' managers — who clearly had some of Tony Alessandra's Directors and Jim Cathcart's high-velocity types among their ranks — not only worked alongside their technical crew but also brought in food, videos, and even sleeping bags so that employees could take naps during test runs.

“At the end of the weekend, the group presented their leaders with a plaque in honor of all the support they had provided,” says Hansford. No one recorded the leaders' responses for posterity — but Hansford would like to think there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Margery Stein is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. She is a contributing editor to CMI.

4 Personality Types — and What Motivates Them

  1. Directors — goal-oriented, take-charge individuals
    Best reward: money, cars, anything that shows they're winners

  2. Socializers — open, relationship-oriented
    Best reward: tangible evidence of an accomplishment, such as a trophy

  3. Thinkers — analytical, systematic, enjoy problem-solving and learning
    Best reward: a trip to an educational conference

  4. Relaters — value personal relationships
    Best reward: trips with a loved one

SOURCE: Tony Alessandra


Need a little assist in choosing the gift that fits your employee's or boss's personal style? Perfect Present Picker ( can help you nail down your recipient's characteristics — from “analytical” to “frugal” to “needs brain chip” (for people who are “not all there”) to “persnickety” — and then guide you through selecting a present using its gift idea search technology, narrowing potential results through such categories as interests and occasion. You can also check out PPP's Editor's Picks and its Hot Gift Items, find out what kinds of gifts other visitors chose, surf the top sites they've visited this month, or get inspiration from “recently added gift ideas,” including kitschy items such as a happy kitty pin or kooky treasures such as Harley-Davidson ceramicware.