By Barbara Haga, February 15, 2017

I am going to jump out on a limb here and suggest that recognition tied to performance appraisals is at best benign and not achieving what it is intended to do, and possibly a detriment to performance management in Federal agencies.  For this piece, I am talking about cash awards and Quality Step Increases (QSIs). I would ask each reader to reflect on these questions.  Have you ever changed the amount of effort you put into your work or the techniques you used to complete your work based on the hope of getting some type of performance recognition?  If you got an award, was there a spike in your performance because you were pleased to be recognized or grateful for the extra money?  Did you do something extra beyond what you were normally going to do because you were recognized?  Did that spike in your performance last?

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Taking a hugely oversimplified view of what motivates people, I would define intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for employees as follows.   Intrinsic motivation is what comes from inside – how you feel about the work, how it aligns with your values, whether it achieves an end you believe is worthwhile, etc.  Extrinsic motivation is external, in this case largely coming from your employer or possibly your peers.  These things encourage you to achieve in order to be rewarded or to avoid a negative consequence.  It could be a cash award, recognition in front of your peers, a promotion, etc.

I think many of us who work in the employee relations business do it because we believe that what we are doing is important and that the organization as a whole is better for it, if we do our jobs well.  In my experience, I have found that most HR practitioners in this line of work are more motivated by the intrinsic rather than the extrinsic factors.

I have been asked many times about why NASA ranks so highly in surveys like the Best Places to Work.  I believe it is because of intrinsic motivation.  Employees in the science and engineering disciplines grew up wanting to do this kind of work, wanting to be part of NASA.  In many areas, they are working on cutting edge science and making contributions that change the world.  You can’t buy that kind of motivation – it is intrinsic. It is also contagious.  Even the folks in contracting and budget seem to align themselves very easily with that view. Other agencies want to copy what NASA does to raise their scores on those surveys.  I don’t think it is what NASA does but rather who NASA employs.  I would suspect that if you looked at places like NIH, the CDC, and the EPA you would find a similar level of intrinsic motivation.  I am not sure that an agency can accomplish with external motivators what the employee doesn’t already bring with them.

Are Performance Awards Effective Extrinsic Motivators

Here’s a scary thought.  Should an agency really want to buy a person’s best performance?  If you are a manager, is that the person you want?  Or, do you want the person who sees the work as a challenge or that the goal is something valuable to the organization?  Would you feel more comfortable with the one who takes the assignment because it is important and will ensure that management’s interests are protected or an employee who says, “Yes, I’ll volunteer to do that training session, or I’ll take that grievance that covers fifty individual employees, or I’ll put together the template for adverse action letters on that charge we’ve had issues defending – if you pay me a little extra”?

I am sad to say that I don’t think performance awards are effective motivators.  First of all, in some organizations the awards are virtually automatic and everyone rated Fully Successful or higher gets one.  So, an employee comes to work and does what is expected and is rewarded.  I have worked in some places where the question wasn’t whether recognition would be granted, since essentially everyone got something, but rather when the payments were going to be processed.  There really wasn’t a question whether an employee would get one; people were already planning on the payments.

Because some unions have negotiated awards and/or award amounts, they have essentially become almost an entitlement.  I remember reading at the time of the 2013 furloughs that the IRS wanted to eliminate award payments in order to reduce the number of furlough days, but the union wouldn’t agree to eliminate them.  NTEU Chapter 67 ( has a post on their website dated 11/22/2016 that echoes that thinking which is apparently still alive and well.  It says, “While you were working hard, NTEU was fighting hard to make sure you received your performance award.  In this tough budget environment, the IRS tried to cut the awards program, but we fought successfully to keep it.”  So, in the union’s view it is a good answer that in order to deal with budget constraints, it isn’t an option to reduce or eliminate award payments?

Secondly, we have that fundamental problem with what the employee must do to achieve one.  Is there a clear explanation of what is expected at various levels of performance in order to be recognized?  Or, are managers paraphrasing the famous definition of pornography and telling employees, “I can’t define what it takes to be Outstanding or Superior, but I’ll know it when I see it.” How are award decisions made in such an organization?  Is it favoritism as sometimes employees suggest, or is it the “halo” effect – those who have been viewed as achieving significant results in the past are always viewed that way?

Now, back to the questions I posed at the beginning.  How many of you were inspired to reach new levels of performance by a performance award you’ve received?  Is your organization more affective in meeting agency goals because you have an effective performance recognition program?  What I have observed in many organizations is that it may be a nice “thank you” but it is not an effective extrinsic motivator.

More on this topic next time. [email protected]

[Editor’s Note: As the FELTG staff psychologist, I applauded Barbara’s common sense conclusions and add that they are routinely backed up by the scientists who study motivation. If you read the literature on awards as motivators, you find three bottom lines:

  • Annual awards programs such as those found routinely in the federal government have never (as in “not ever”) been proven to motivate increased performance.
  • In contrast, there is decent evidence that piecemeal awards (sometimes referred to as “performance contingency reward systems” by those trying to sound impressive) do indeed act to motive increased production. For example, workers who dig ditches who are paid by the foot as compared to being paid by the hour dig longer trenches.
  • However, piecemeal awards DO NOT seem to motivate increased quality or creativity. Also, individuals who have been given piecemeal awards for some period of time, and then who are denied future piecemeal awards, reduce their production levels below those employees who never received piecemeal awards.

Whether we like it or not, awarding federal employees to improve the quality of their work is not supported by science. And, it’s expensive.]

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