There’s Nothing Better Than Birthday Cake… or is there?

Birthday Cake

One of my very favorite books is “Drive” by Dan Pink (summaries of the concepts discussed can be found here and here).

I am fascinated by the idea of motivation, and what motivates a person at work. I have thought a lot recently about what types of “extra” (rewards, prizes, money, etc.) can be given – and how they should be given – to truly motivate in a way that is meaningful, effective, and lasting. I still haven’t arrived at the perfect blend of what that looks like, but I have arrived at one thing it definitely is not: birthday cake.

That’s right, good old fashioned birthday cake (usually accompanied by some meager attempt by co-workers to sing happy birthday). This could expand slightly to include cookies/treats, ‘team birthday lunch’ or something along those lines.

Put yourself in the shoes of the well-intentioned department/team manager, for a moment. You probably think something like, “hey, so-and-so will LOVE to be praised on their birthday, it will be fun for us all to have some cake and celebrate!”

Fun? Perhaps.

Meaningful for the “recipient”? Absolutely not, in my humble opinion.

The well-intentioned manager is not getting nearly the return on investment he/she thinks.

Why, you ask?

Three simple reasons:

  1. It is not earned.
  2. It is too predictable.
  3. It is not personalized.

So, let’s use the birthday cake as an example of “what not to do” and discuss how to make “extras” more meaningful, and thus, more effective and long-lasting in helping your employees feel great about their place of work.

Now, a few words on each reason:

1) Rewards should be earned.

You’ve heard the phrase, “you get what you reward” right? Well, it is absolutely true… now think about this, what if you are giving a reward for doing/achieving nothing?!?!?! To make a reward meaningful, and effective, it should correlate to something – positive performance, unique contribution, significant achievement, etc.

I suppose a little “gimme” every once in a while is fun, but be aware what message that sends if done too frequently.

2) Rewards should not be predictable.

A predictable ‘reward’ quickly de-evolves from a meaningful ‘extra’ to a version of Pavlov’s dogs…

Dog hears a bell, begins to drool = Employee has a birthday, expects cake.

Predictable rewards very quickly become an expectation.

3) Rewards should be personalized.

To be most effective, an “extra” should be something unique to the person, something meaningful to him/her (maybe even his/her family as well!). Maybe a gift card to his/her favorite restaurant, maybe an electronic gadget, maybe a book or pen.

These three basic principles of rewards take some thought, and a little bit of effort, but not any more money than buying a birthday cake for each person on their birthday.

Give it a shot! Try it out! Instead of birthday cake, try something different to give your employee a reward.

It may feel a little bit uncomfortable, doing away with a tradition like that; BUT, in the end, you’ll be glad you did – and so will your employees.

One thought on “There’s Nothing Better Than Birthday Cake… or is there?

  1. Pingback: Employee of the Month program – more dangerous than helpful…? | Real. Simple. Leadership.

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