Rewarding Individuals in a Collaborative Work Environment

The following article is provided courtesy of Jonathan Finer of Cloverleaf Innovation:

Fostering collaboration in the workplace is a nearly universally accepted best practice—it creates a dynamic atmosphere that generates creative solutions that no individual could conceive of independently. But collaborative offices present a challenge for company leaders who want to reward their most valuable employees. Ultimately, this question emerges: who deserves a gold star when the final product is the fruit of everyone’s labor?

It gets even more complex when you consider the psychology of group dynamics. Individual rewards often instill competition, a counterproductive side effect when success is contingent on cooperation. However, even in collaborative environments it’s possible to acknowledge the best and brightest.

Team-based rewards are one good option. These accolades reinforce that all members of a group have a common interest, encouraging individuals to work together effectively. However, management must carefully design these rewards, which often fail to recognize that although a team is a singular body, it is comprised of unique individuals.

To avoid the free-rider effect, also known as social loafing, be sure to form groups that are small enough that individual members cannot “disappear” and hide poor performance.  To keep team-based rewards fair, avoid bonuses. It’s unlikely that all members are on the same salary, and an extra $500 means much more to your worker making $40,000 annually than to his counterpart bringing home $100,000. Percentage increases in salary present a similar dilemma. In general, monetary rewards of a carrot-and-stick nature are risky in collaborative environments because they tend to instill unhealthy competition and resentment.

The best team-based rewards are those that all group members can enjoy equally. Give your highest-performing team extra vacation days, a budget to throw a party, or the time to pursue an independent project. Shared rewards like these are valuable regardless of salary level.

You can also build rewards into the collaborative process itself. Research shows that a sense of belonging intensely motivates team members to help a group achieve its collective goals. Create and implement bonding activities at a project’s onset to instill this sort of kinship, which will boost individuals’ intrinsic motivation to see the group succeed—ultimately reducing or eliminating the need for external rewards.

There are also some safe ways to reward individuals in a collaborative workplace without destroying the atmosphere of trust that is the backbone of successful teamwork. The key is to reward individuals’ contributions to team efforts.

The best way to do this: have team members recognize each other. Instill a culture where spontaneous peer-to-peer shout-outs for good work are a norm. Or, have teams nominate an “MVP” at the end of each project—someone who deserves to be recognized by company leadership for their commitment to the team’s success.

Peer-to-peer evaluations are an easy way to facilitate this recognition (and also avoid the aforementioned free-rider effect). At the end of each project, have team members anonymously assess their coworkers’ contributions in a variety of areas. Emphasize skills associated with teamwork such as accountability, openness, and willingness to help.

Additionally, ask team members to map a “team ecosystem” specifying the particular niche filled by each individual. This lets leadership reward folks for unique qualities like “Biggest Risk-Taker” rather than for quantifiable outcomes like “Most Sales Generated”—it’s the most personal and authentic way to acknowledge good work. It also reinforces the sense of belonging that encourages collaborative participation, making individuals proud of their skills and motivating them to apply those strengths to every team endeavor they’re a part of. An added bonus: by identifying each worker’s skill set, this type of evaluation can help leadership build more efficient and harmonious teams in the future.

The best collaborative work environments do not treat all employees identically. Instead, they celebrate each team member’s unique role in the community. Rewarding individuals in collaborative organizations can be a valuable, even necessary way to maintain a dynamic work atmosphere. The key, though, is to create rewards that bring out the best in everyone.


About the Author: Jonathan Finer is Chief Innovation Office at Cloverleaf Innovation, a Chicago-based innovation consultancy dedicated to bringing fresh thinking and actionable solutions to our clients’ most demanding brand, product and service challenges. Find him on Google+.