What about recognition? Isn't recognizing an employee who's done good work an effective motivational tool?

Yes. Recognizing good performance is the single most important motivation tool managers have at their disposal. It is cheap (usually free), is universally liked, and results in an increase in desired performance.

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Behind this question about motivation lurks a larger issue: How do we go about changing human behavior? Motivating a person involves

getting that person to decide to do more of behavior A (e.g., coming to work on time, taking an entrepreneurial approach to her work, completing reports when they are needed) and less of behavior (e.g., coming late, doing the minimum required, missing deadlines).

What do we know for sure about human behavior? The truth is, we know precious little. But it turns out that there is one thing that we do know for sure, one thing that is highly predictive of human behavior. It is the seven-word principle that psychologist B. F. Skinner promulgated in 1936: "Behavior is a function of its consequences." Never has truth been captured more succinctly.

What Skinner meant was this: To a large extent, what people do depends on what happens to them as a result. If a person does something and the consequence is positive/rewarding/pleasant, the person will keep on doing that thing. If a person does something and discovers that the consequences are negative/punishing/distasteful, she will stop doing that thing. And if a person does something and finds out that there are no consequencesnothing at all happenshe may keep it up for a short time but eventually, to use Skinner's fancy phrase, the behavior will be extinguished.

Although making significant changes in jobs to increase their motivational value is an important long-term effort, the decision to immediately start providing recognition of good performance anytime it's encountered can get the motivational engine working fast. Acknowledging excellent work every time it appears is a wonderful way to start increasing motivation fast.

We're considering starting an employee-of-the-month program. Is this a good recognition tool?

No. Don't do it. Employee-of-the-month programs are a notoriously bad idea.

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The problem with employee-of-the-month programs is not so much with the concept, but with the execution. The concept is a noble one: Every month the organization will review the employee population and single out that one individual who, in the month past, has achieved some remarkable success or has otherwise performed exceptionally well. That's the theory.

In practice it doesn't quite work that way. To begin, every month the company names one winner. What does that make all of the rest of the company's employees? The answer: losers.

Another problem comes up in determining how the lucky employee will be selected each month. Will there be specific criteria, like getting the highest score on the customer satisfaction survey or bringing in the most new accounts? What will you do when, month after month, Esmerelda gets the highest score and once again qualifies as your employee-of-the-month? Pretty soon people will start to resent both the program and Esmerelda. Esmerelda will discover that her life is far more pleasant if she does a mediocre job to avoid being stigmatized as the employee-of-the-month one more time.

What if you don't have criteria and just cast about for nominations every month? With no criteria, there will be little relationship between the person earning the accolade and the quality of performance displayed. If the tangible rewards that accompany being named the monthly winner are significant (a reserved parking place close to where the CEO parks, a free dinner at a decent restaurant), it will soon devolve into a popularity contest. If there are no significant perks other than having one's name engraved on a little bronze fitting on a little wooden plaque, then it will soon become the monthly drawing of a name from a hat.

Companies and their managers rush into employee-of-the-month and other trinket programs because they seem like easy fixes, not realizing the amount of energy that it takes to make the program work effectively month after month. A program that kicks off in January will get a lot of attention through March or April. By May the program is becoming familiar. By July supervisors are unresponsive and ignore requests for nominations. And around September you'll start hearing the comments, "Is it time for that damned employee-of-the-month program again?"

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The worst thing about an employee-of-the-month program is that it denies the supervisor's responsibility for being the primary dispenser of employee recognition. If a company has an employee-of-the-month program, then the supervisor can rationalize his failure to recognize good performance on his subordinates' part by saying, "That's the responsibility of the employee-of-the-month program."

To test whether the employee-of-the-month concept is really a valid idea, test it yourself. Then next time you're in an office, restaurant, or hotel that proudly posts their plaque of employees of the month, locate one of the recipients and ask that person, "What did you actually do to win the employee of the month award?" Most of the time the person will simply respond, "I have no idea."

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