A USA Today front-page article skewering corporate motivational programs painted a biased and incomplete picture, say spokespeople for the incentive industry.

The article said that the motivation industry continues to explode, but that more than half of employees in corporate America can muster no enthusiasm for their work. “There has been exhaustive academic research trying to find out what motivates workers, and it has turned up almost no evidence that motivational spending makes any difference,” noted the reporter.

Michael Key, director of meetings and incentives for Baltimore-based Monumental Life Insurance Co., begs to differ with any suggestion that incentives are ineffective. During the past two years, despite an increase in the sales quota needed to qualify for the company's annual incentive trip, more agents have cleared that raised bar, he says. “Incentive travel has proven time and time again to be the most effective tool to motivate agents to achieve our goals.”

Jill Harrington, executive vice president and CEO of the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, said the article selectively chose statistics without putting them into the context of a broader employee motivation strategy. “Incentives are only one piece of the overall employee motivation strategy.” If there is no strong management support, no healthy culture, if employees are not given the salary or tools they need, no incentive program is going to work. SITE is working on ways to help companies measure the return on investment of their incentive and motivation programs, she notes.

Bob Nelson, president of San Diego-based Nelson Motivation, who was contacted for the USA Today story, says he wasn't asked for evidence of whether motivation techniques work. He would have cited his recent doctoral dissertation — which shows clear links between recognition and performance — and a mountain of anecdotal evidence supporting the value of happy employees.

The article reflected misconceptions about how people factor into the profit equation, Nelson says. “You can maximize your return on investment and your use of equipment, but where there's an unlimited potential is through your people,” he says. “A lot of people just don't believe that or [they] think it's hocus-pocus — but it's very real.”