If they don't learn what motivates their employees, managers can miss the mark with their reward programs.

While it's true that a gold watch at retirement is more than a little passe, it still could be the perfect form of recognition - if that's what an employee has his or her heart set on. Even stock options, popular as they are, are not as effective with employees who have little say or involvement in their company's decision-making.

Few management concepts are as solidly founded as the idea that positive reinforcement - rewarding behavior you want repeated - works. Recognition for a job well done is, in fact, the top motivator of employee performance. But how can you choose rewards that work well and don't miss the mark?

It's all about targeting the specific needs and interests of the people you are trying to motivate. For example, most dot-com companies tend to employ young people who want to be engaged in work they care about. In this corporate culture, employees value the social aspects of working with others their age. They want to be given leeway and the chance to pursue their ideas and learn new skills. They need to be challenged by their work and take on new responsibilities.

At a recent program, one young man told me that he felt most motivated when his company gave him full contact with a key client, trusting that he would do what it took to meet that client's needs. Another participant, a man who manages younger employees, said he likes to be able to vary daily routines, doing things such as holding a meeting outside at a picnic table rather than in a conference room.

Two different people, two different motivations.

Three Common Mistakes Tapping into what drives employees is only part of the process. It's also important to find out what type of reward works best for your employees, even if you have to ask them directly. Ineffective or counterproductive incentives often start when well-meaning managers unilaterally announce that they have decided to give everyone logoed T-shirts, a holiday turkey, or a round of golf.

Second, don't expect the same rewards to remain effective forever. Sometimes a recognition program can lose touch with those whom it was meant to excite, so that what was once an honor becomes a joke. In other cases, employees might perceive award recipients as being the manager's favorites instead of as legitimate winners. The shelf life of a typical recognition program these days is closer to 15 to 17 weeks than 15 to 17 years. Find out what's working and what's not, and adjust accordingly.

Finally, don't expect that the same rewards will work for every employee. Equal treatment of those who are not equals in the workplace will not only alienate your top performers, but it can also sometimes reinforce average, even marginal, employee performance.

Remember, you get what you reward!

1. Reward behavior that you want repeated. Recognition for a job well done is the top motivator of employee performance.

2. Vary your rewards to suit the needs and interests of those you are trying to motivate. Give them what they truly value, whether it's the traditional gold watch or the chance to pursue their ideas.

3. Discuss the planned forms of reward with the people you are trying to motivate. Eliminate guesswork by starting with the ideas, interests, and motivators that are most important to them.

4. Evaluate your program often. Even the best reward programs are in danger of outliving their effectiveness.