10 Reasons Why Employee Motivation Programs are a Huge Waste of Time

"Paul Marciano"

Paul Marciano

[tweetmeme]Despite all the research that confirms traditional reward and recognition programs decrease employee motivation and productivity, organizations persist in their use. Why? Perhaps because they seem to make sense taken at face value. I mean, who would think that “Employee of the Month” programs actually destroy employ morale and teamwork – but they do!

Perhaps these programs persist because people just don’t know any better. Here are 10 reasons why you and your organization should STOP using these programs to try and motivate employees because they are a huge waste of time and money.


  1. Programs fail because they are programs. Reward and recognition programs fail for the same reason that diets fail — because they are programs! Programs don’t fundamentally change employees’ beliefs or commitment to their job.  They simply change their behavior during the course of the program. Employees are motivated to work toward the goal only as long as the program continues.

  3. Rewards are not necessarily what employees want. The most basic assumption of reward and recognition programs is that the “donkey” wants the “carrot.” I live on a farm with donkeys. This may surprise you, but not all donkeys like carrots. Organizations always assume they know what employees will find desirable. In truth, many rewards are not the least enticing and some even downright undesirable.

  5. Goals can limit performance. Setting goals should be viewed as stepping-stones and opportunities to celebrate accomplishments, not as finish lines. In the words of Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University’s men’s basketball coach, “I never have a goal that involves number of wins — never. It would just tend to limit our potential.”

  7. Programs foster cheating. Cheating or deception of some form tends to occur in most programs. Examples range from the fairly benign to the illegal. These include expediting or delaying orders or expenses, withholding information or providing misleading information, taking shortcuts, stealing customers, or in some other way attempting to make the employee or team look better than the competition — also known as co-workers. Programs with high-value rewards and few winners are most likely to turn employees into cheaters.

  9. Programs destroy teamwork. Obviously, cheating destroys teamwork but other factors contribute to team dysfunction. Within any team there are employees with different skill levels, commitment to the organization, and those with the inability to devote additional effort outside of normal business hours because of family and other responsibilities. Invariably, “pulling the load” frustrates the hardworking, motivated employee. In the end, win or lose, the employees who were the most motivated will feel the most cheated.

  11. Programs reduce creativity and risk taking. Employees are risk-averse when it comes to competing for a reward. They don’t want to risk losing and looking bad because they tried some new, clever approach that failed. Traditional reward and recognition programs reinforce “doing it by the book” — not experimentation. Such programs actually discourage innovation, creativity, and risk taking — the very behaviors that improve organizations. People may work harder but they will not work smarter.

  13. Reward programs devalue work. Reward and recognition programs actually diminish the perceived value of the work to be done. Psychologically, employees are doing the work not because it is important but because they can benefit from it materially. The more employees value a task, the more motivated they will be to perform it well.

  15. Wrong behaviors are rewarded. Frequently, reward and recognition programs reinforce the wrong behaviors. For example, organizational leaders may speak of the importance of teamwork but then create programs that recognize and reinforce individual performance. This may well result in rewarding the individual who is the worst team player. Is your company accidentally reinforcing behaviors that run counter to the values of your organization?

  17. Programs have no impact on workplace culture. Reward and recognition programs will never lead to long-term, sustainable changes in behavior because they have no impact on organizational culture. Culture drives behavior and behavior reinforces culture. Highly effective organizations have a culture where people work hard and achieve – and this behavior is not the result of any program.

  19. Reward programs decrease overall motivation. Ironically, these programs reward the top performers in the organization and reinforce how unappreciated the poor performers feel. How much more motivated and productive can the best employees be? It’s like the student who asks, “Dr. Marciano, I got a 98 on my exam, can you help me get 100?”


The employees who increased their efforts and were not recognized will be demoralized and adopt the attitude, “Why should I bother working harder if I don’t get anything for it?” The additional effort of these employees actually dips below what it was before the program.

It may be difficult for managers to accept but it’s the truth; traditional reward and recognition programs that seek to motivate employees actually do more harm than good.

So, you may be asking yourself: “If I don’t motivate employees through traditional programs, then how can I improve productivity?” The answer is – you’re asking the wrong question. Maximizing the productivity of your workforce has nothing to do with motivating them – it has to do with building a culture of RESPECT that leads to engagement.

Engaged employees are committed, loyal and dedicated, and will deliver high levels of discretionary effort without the promise of carrots or threats of the stick. Employees experience respect when leaders engage in the following behaviors.

Recognition: Acknowledging employees’ contributions on a daily basis

Empowerment: Providing employees with the tools, resources, training, and information they need to be successful

Supportive Feedback: Giving ongoing performance feedback – both positive and corrective

Partnering: Fostering a collaborative working environment 1:1, within and across teams

Expectation Setting: Setting clear performance goals and holding employees accountable

Consideration: Demonstrating thoughtfulness, empathy, and kindness

Trust: Demonstrating faith and belief in employees’ skills, abilities, and decisions

If you want to maximize the ROI of your employees, throw out the carrots and sticks and start showing them respect.


Paul Marciano is author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.  His book provides real world case studies and turnkey strategies to increase employee discretionary effort and reduce turnover. Dr. Marciano earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University where he specialized in behavior modification and motivation. Follow him on Twitter @drpaulmarciano.


Leave a Reply


  1. I agree totally that employee motivated programs are a waste of time! But I also agree that once the RESPECT program is in place, it makes for a fun environment to have a monthly or quarterly trivia or some sort of contest for them to get involved with!

    I was in charge of a company safety program where the Respect was not there but the games and prizes were. Needless to say, yes the employees liked winning prizes, but after the win, safety rules were not followed properly.

    Thanks for your article, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Rhonda Fingar

  2. Rhonda — thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Curious – how did you solve the safety rules problem?

  3. Thanks, Patrick. My mother used to say don’t tear other people down to build yourself up. Don’t condescend to make yourself feel important is good advice.

  4. Thanks Paul (and Jeannette) for having Paul write this post.

    I am not the biggest fan of “motivational” programs. If someone is having to be “motivated” it conjures up a pushing mechanism, and no one likes to be “pushed” and many people don’t like to be “pumped up” with recognition and reward.

    I think the missing key here is ongoing one on one mentoring and coaching. Each employee in a company has different values and different external “motivating” factors. Some people love the idea of just winning, some people are motivated by money, some by just being told they are doing a great job. If you want a behavior to change, that positive behavior has to be repeated at least 10,000 times and has to be done with a supportive person by his or her side.

    So, the motivational trainers are making a ton of money, and yes…it’s a bit boost in the arm, but my question is this? Why don’t these seminars “stick” after the first week of the big “high”?

  5. Bea — totally agree with your comment about motivational training. If it’s a one-off program there are diminishing returns fairly quickly. It’s like training someone to be a more polished presenter. Unless that executive receives ongoing coaching every time s/he makes a presentation s/he will just revert to bad habits like saying “ah” or not making eye contact. Practice, practice, practice is the key.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head when you emphasized the point that respect is what will motivate most employees. I think this could be said for “most people” in general. Thank you for sharing.

  7. I agree and it is refreshing to have this discussion. Motivation at best is a short term strategy.

    The long term strategy is for developing a work culture and work environment that is truly engaging and meets the belonging and esteem needs of employees. If you have this, employees will walk over hot coals in their bare feet to support the organization and its goals.

    We are offering a complimentary series of short webinars on this topic starting in April.

    Leaders who understand the psychology behind what employees need to excell and provide that coupled with hiring correctly from the start foster loyalty beyond measure.

  8. Thanks, Catherine and Dianne for your comments. Good point that respect is deserved not only in the workplace but in our personal lives, too.

  9. Interesting way of looking at it with a lot of truth in it. And I like your suggestion of what to do instead because basically it boils down to leadership.

    There is far too little of leadership in this world. As opposed to the abundance of leadership programs. Pity managers who frequently remain managers even after attending such courses. But not surprising since they are often given by people who are not leaders.

  10. You provide some good information as to why motivation programs are a waste of time. Motivational programs need to encourage and reward people foremost. This means before implementing a program leaders should take the time to understand the motivating factors of their team. The second element I see in motivational programs is that they need to support the goals of the team. If either of these two qualities are lacking the program will not be successful.

    • David — I agree. First understand what motivates a team and then reward accordingly. And it’s not always only money.