A large part of my job can be summed up as "improving people" - either through individual mentoring, coaching, technical training, or other organizational change. In most cases, making improvement requires making change. One thing you have to consider when making change is motivation and consequences of making change. Consider what is motivating people to make a change rather than go with the flow. Rewards are an easy to comprehend motivation and can fall into several categories.
The simplest example of rewards is money. Someone does a good job, throw them some dough. For many people, cash is a sufficient reward, but for others, the recognition - either private or public is what they seek.
I often re-read this article written in 1993. One relevant quote is:
While rewards are effective at producing temporary compliance, they are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting changes in attitudes or behavior. The news gets worse. About two dozen studies from the field of social psychology conclusively show that people who expect to receive a reward do not perform as well as those who expect nothing. This result, which holds for all sorts of rewards, people and tasks, is most dramatic when creativity is involved.
Another point often missed when thinking about rewards is how they can punish those who are not rewarded. I a previous post, I hinted about a situation where I criticized a development manager on my team. The details of the situation were that this manager intended to reward a team that was woefully behind by sending an email to the entire organization praising their great work. In the email, he talked about the high quality of their feature, as well as the quality of their unit tests and design documentation. The problem was, that I, as well as much of the rest of the organization knew that their feature was barely working, their unit tests were poor, and that their documentation was worse. They had missed nearly every deadline, and had made exceptions for every quality bar. Their team morale was low, and they certainly needed motivation and recognition more than any team I've ever observed.
But the development manager went overboard on his praise, and while making one team feel good about themselves, his praise (as I predicted in my "harsh and critical manner") demoralized the other teams. Many of the teams had worked hard to set quality standards early and worked efficiently to meet all of their deadlines and goals. These folks felt like the big reward came to those who procrastinated, had poor planning, and emphasized the hero culture. The development manager meant well, but sent the wrong message. This, unfortunately, is an easy thing to do, and many inexperienced managers make this same mistake.
The problem is at least equally as bad at the individual level. I've recently observed a small team who have core values (more about values here) centered on technical excellence, passion for learning, and accountabilities. A new person joined their team who not only didn't share all of these values, but had a completely different set of values and goals than the rest of the team. While most of the team was focused on research and on solving technical problems, the new person spent their time booking seemingly random meetings with various people around the company (to be fair, there was probably some value in this work, but it wasn't apparent to the other team members). When the new person was required to contribute, they usually made an attempt at the last minute to save face - often calling or emailing team members with last minute questions. The new person was frequently being bailed of problems by the rest of the team, further impacting their productivity. The ability of the team to make progress against their goals was impaired, but they accomplished a lot anyway.
When it came time to give rewards to the team, a promotion was granted...to the new person. The team manager felt that if so many people across the company knew who the new person on the team was already that they must be making a great impact. The manager meant well, but in their inexperience, made a bad choice. The effect on the team was substantial. While many of them joke about "calling a lot of meetings rather than accomplishing their tasks", it's nearly impossible for most people to change their core values in this way. In reality, the team is depressed and frustrated. Many, unfortunately, are considering leaving the company. Anyone who has ever read mini's blog have read about similar situations.
Rewards can be a fantastic way to motivate people who continue to do great work over a period of time. Rewards can also easily be a way to cause dissent and demoralization among a team. Rewarding "the hero", or the "most visible" person is almost never the right thing to do.