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A Vital Leadership Question: "What Does Our Organization Reward?"

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

A leader is anyone who uses authority, reason, inspiration, charisma or personal example to influence the behavior or beliefs of others. – Michael Josephson

Boost Your Leadership Skills Simply by Answering the Question, "What Does Our Organization Reward?"

The difference between leaders is ears. Good leaders not only ask good questions but also listen to the answers. 

Ask people in your organization: "What does our organization reward?"  Listening to the answer may help you achieve a marked increase in results. 

Rewards and punishments make up the drive shaft of any organization. But my experience working with hundreds of leaders during the past 25 years reveals that most of their organizations reward the wrong things. 

Such organizations may pay lip service to rewarding people for what is viewed as the right things: getting the right results, getting the right results in the right ways. But what they may reward, often in terms of promotions and job rewards, are the care and feeding of top leaders' egos, political conniving, and authoritarian leadership.

Here is a way to transform wrong rewards into right results.

(1) Ask people in your organization what your organization rewards. The answers may surprise you. But do not get caught up in those answers. Do not make value judgments. At this stage, you are just an observer. Compile the list. 

(2) Gauge each item on the list against the results your organization needs. Does it help get results? Does it detract from results? 

Do it this way: Pick out a single item from your list. Please describe the problem in the item and find who controls its solution. Execute a "stop-start-continue" process. What reward do you stop, what do you start, and what do you continue?

You will get results, but do not expect overnight success. Not only are these wrong rewards ingrained habits, but changing them seldom achieves quick results. Still, keep asking, what does my organization reward? Overall, when tackling the challenges that come with listening to the answers, you will get more results and sharpen your leadership skills.

(3) Ask, "What does your leadership reward?"  When your leadership rewards the wrong things, you are getting a fraction of the results you are capable of. However, since we see the faults of others more clearly than our own, it may be more challenging to find and deal with your issues rather than your organization.

Leaders tend to say they have a safe space to talk with their team. Then, when someone opens, they end up in a surprise HR meeting. This fosters fear and lack of openness, and the reward becomes NOT getting in trouble by being quiet. This happens more than most leaders realize in an authoritarian leadership situation, a time of momentous change, or during a merger where a lot of leadership tends to look more inward than outward at those they lead and serve. 

In the end, if workers are not allowed to be honest and open, that company is doomed to large turnovers, low-quality company culture, and dark long-term weak results.

HR is the first line of defense to give honest leadership a clear view of what needs to change, what needs to be improved, or what needs to excel and be more prevalent.

Do a 360-degree assessment. Select a single item from the list and apply the start-stop-continue process. Do not simply cut the thing. Such items can be used for the “results mill.” Find the problem in the article, then have the solution be a tool that gets results. 

Guarantee you will get results. You are cutting a negative aspect of your leadership and replacing it with a results-producing one. When you make this a long-term endeavor going from item to item to results will come to you in new and often unexpected ways. 

Hard times, dealt with correctly, create an era of peace and optimization. Leadership is tasked with attacking the situations up front, creating safe, thriving cultures, and ensuring everyone can feel free to be their selves as champions for the company. This only happens when the metrics from research, spoken one-on-ones, and authentic, clear gut reactions come together for the betterment of the talent at the company and not to secure higher leadership jobs against the truth being shared in quiet rooms behind closed doors. Open the world to innovative ideas, and you will see successful results. Close the door on all-new voices, and the company will shrink and struggle.

It takes courage to be a quality leader and servant of the company and clients.

(4) Encourage the people you lead to questioning the rewards aspects of their leadership. Be aware of their reactions to your encouragement. Do they see the questioning as meaningful to their jobs? Do they want their colleagues involved in such an examination? Do they want to have senior management question their leadership? 

If people want the questioning to be a regular part of their daily work, continue it. If they feel it has little value, call a time-out. If people believe they are powerless to change things in the organization, seismic questions like this will only frustrate and anger them, creating a hothouse environment for cynicism to flower.

Free agents have been used in companies as councils, staff ambassadors, or truly private lines of communication to get the authentic culture and issues on the table. Leadership can get creative in offering truth tools for their employees. When the truth can flow freely, leadership will not be leading blindly. Cultural history sometimes stops people from talking to the “Mount Olympus” of a company, not knowing that the C-Suite, these days, wants to have input. The ship is being steered without all the information about the ice below the waters. Get all the information you can for the safety of all involved (leaders, employees, and clients).

When a company is too big for HR to prompt make their rounds, leaders taking it into their hands and honestly connecting for the betterment of all is always the best choice.

As you go forward:


- Cultivate a typical, self-reinforcing fervor for the questioning among the people. Do not force things. Be an observer and a supporter. Observe their reactions to the test and support their efforts to make it succeed.

- Encourage the development of networks of people taking the initiative to engage in the questioning together.

- Now and then, and especially in the beginning, set aside special times and places to have them focus exclusively on such questioning, making sure they continually link the answers to getting increases in results. 

- Keep that linkage alive. This is not an academic exercise. It is not meant to have people feel good or, on the other hand, vent their frustrations. Its sole aim is to get MEASURABLE INCREASES IN RESULTS. If results are not forthcoming, have people refocus on the need for the questioning; if you still are not receiving results, curtail or even cut it for a while. You can always reactivate it when the time and the environment are more conducive to having it succeed. 

- Avoid having the process deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing. The idea is not to use the questioning to get the goods on people or as a platform for emotional outbursts against the organization but instead for what it is meant to be, a powerful tool to get more results continually. 

Mind you; people should not spend inordinate amounts of time questioning. Nor should it be seen as a significant, discrete effort, an operations or marketing program. The opposite: It should be a natural part of everybody's leadership activities. Constantly asking, are we rewarding the right things? It should eventually come as second nature. 

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