Wow Employees With Incentives They Never Knew They Wanted

shirtAn important element of human performance is incentives. Part of ensuring that people perform at optimum levels is providing them things of value in exchange for great performance, either past or future performance. The form of incentives can be financial (e.g., salary, cash bonuses), privileges (e.g., work from home, casual Friday), symbolic (e.g., public kudos at a company meeting) or material.

Material incentives entail providing people items of value to make them want to perform well. But who defines value? A material incentive is a unique mix of offering people things that have both a financial and a personal value. There’s no deceit or arcane psychology involved here. If a sales team is told that the top ten performers for the year will get a trip to Hawaii, then the team will see a financial value of thousands of dollars and the chance to hang out in a tropical paradise. For many, that’s enough incentive to perform well.

Material incentives need to be unique. And they don’t need to be overly expensive or the result of a massive annual event. Injecting the wow factor can have far greater impact than the price tag. The best material incentives, the ones with the greatest performance ROI, are those that an employee loves, but wouldn’t think to pay for by themselves. Not because the cost is so high, but because it’s viewed as an extravagance, a luxury item. Better still, if you can come up with a material incentive that people didn’t even know they wanted in the first place, you have a home run.


I recently met with Thea Foley, a style advisor with the J. Hilburn company ( Thea is a bubbly redhead who clearly loves what she does:  providing custom clothing and style services to individuals. J. Hilburn’s men’s shirts cost in the $100 – $150 range. Thea’s consulting services are free; she will take exacting measurements, the way an upscale tailor would, and provide swatch samples from which a customer can choose a fabric to round out his collection. For the novice, Thea will even suggest colors and fabrics to suit a customer’s skin tone and body shape.

More and more, she says, her customers are employees who’ve been given a custom shirt as an incentive from their company. “Imagine you’re an employee attending a company meeting for top performers,” she says. “Then imagine, as a special gift, you’re given a certificate for a free fitting and a custom dress shirt. Many men wouldn’t consider paying $150 for a shirt when he can buy four shirts for that amount at most department stores. Of course it will last forever but that’s a different argument.”

The Incentive That Keeps on Incenting

When the company provides a J. Hilburn custom shirt as an incentive, it’s a thrill. Better still it provides what I call a positive “psychological stamp.” The employee will wear that shirt perhaps every two or three weeks. Every time he pulls it from his closet, there’s a quick physical reminder of how his company recognized his performance. (Who knows? He might even perform just a little better that day.) When he a wears a shirt customized to his frame and color, he’s more likely to get a comment on it.

“Where did you get that?”

“Got it last quarter at the company meeting. We all got one.”

A company can ask for no better validation of an incentive. People can get cynical quickly even over the most lavish and well-intended of material incentives.

“Yeah, I got the President’s Circle award again. We’re going to Denver. Probably skiing or something. I just hope the speeches and PowerPoints are shorter this year.”

No Gender Bias

That’s the men. What about the women? Says Thea, “Certainly we could provide custom shirts, but women tend to prefer consultation or services. A very popular company incentive is providing female employees a certificate for a free ‘closet consultation.’ A style advisor will visit the employee and use their expertise to identify redundancies and gaps. We will advise on what items are no longer in fashion or redundant and that ought to be tossed. We will also recommend novel combinations of tops and skirts or pants along with accessories that can actually increase a wardrobe without having to purchase new items. Also, we can recommend new items that if added to the wardrobe will increase the mix-and-match combinations exponentially. It’s not that style advisors know more than our female clients, even though many of us come from large fashion retailers; our customers just sometimes appreciate an objective professional opinion.”

A closet consultation. Who knew? Again, something many women wouldn’t think to buy for themselves or may not have even known existed.

A custom shirt or closet consultation from J. Hilburn is a personalized gift. A style advisor like Thea Foley provides a service to ensure the gift is unlike any other. It was provided for you and you alone. In the anonymous world of large corporations, it’s a good opportunity for a company to treat a great performer like the unique individual they are.

Do some research. Take some chances. The right material incentive can create an emotional connection, a psychological stamp, with your employees that can incent great performance and have a positive residual effect lasting for years.

And you won’t even have to pay with the shirt off your back.

♦  ♦  ♦

© 2013 The Iago Group LLC

About Author: David E. Wile

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