Motivation Strategies: Keeping Rewards Truly Rewarding

December 1, 2005

John Mayfield, ABRMSM, CRB, has some stellar performers in his company, Mayfield GMAC Real Estate in Farmington, Mo. But he won’t be giving them prizes any time soon recognizing their strong production numbers.

That’s not because they don’t need help keeping their motivation up. Even top performers need to have their praises sung once in a while, Mayfield says. In fact, they love it when he recognizes when they’re doing something well. But offering them incentives, such as free yard signs, for reaching specific performance goals can actually be demotivational if they’re already realizing their own internally set goals, he says.

That associate rewards can backfire might seem counterintuitive. After all, who doesn’t like getting something for free, whether it’s a hot lead or a set of new yard signs?

But there are powerful psychological reasons to reject performance-based incentives for self-motivated top performers and even for new and struggling associates.

“Rewards can be a double-edged sword,” says Edward Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who’s written extensively on motivational issues. “If the rewards come across as controlling—trying to get associates to meet the broker’s goals rather than goals they’ve set for themselves—the recognition isn’t seen as authentic or nourishing.”

“They might just say, ‘I don’t need that; I can buy my own signs,’ and actually become less interested in being a part of the office,” says Mayfield, who has 36 sales associates in three offices.

So how do you structure motivation to be effective up and down the ranks of your sales associates, from the top performers to more modest performers? The answer is in tailoring incentives to where your associates are in their career, say brokers.

Motivating the already motivated

Studies make clear that, to be self-motivated, people need to feel supported by and connected to others but also in control of their own lives and goals, says Deci. For that reason, it makes sense for brokers and managers to organize their business in a way that gives even highly self-motivated associates a structure that guides and supports them, he says.

Aside from providing regular and genuine public praise of your top performers, which is the bedrock approach for keeping them firing on all cylinders, you can help them identify the next level they want to reach and offer your input on their plan for reaching that level. But it must be clear that it’s the associates themselves who devise the plan.

“If their goal is to get 100 listings next year, you can help them with ideas but you need to let them tell you how they’ll do it,” says Debbie Ashbrook, ABR®, a business consultant for Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp. based in Port St. Joe, Fla.

What works best for these go-getters are activities that get their competitive juices flowing. In his office, Jason Patton, broker-owner of United Country-Bay River Realty in Callao, Va., likes to share the latest data from the MLS because just seeing who’s getting the listings and how fast they’re selling can unleash competitive instincts. “We have little rah-rah sessions in which we look at the monthly MLS reports and see how many more listings our associates landed than the competitor, for instance,” says Patton. “That can be very motivating.”

What you don’t want to do is impose incentives on these associates that they didn’t ask for; otherwise you risk damaging your office’s sense of itself as a team. “For instance, you don’t want to use a contest, which can cause friction among your people as they compete to win,” says Patton.

Motivating middle performers

For associates who are established but at a more moderate level than your big guns, offering rewards closely tied to performance can be the right move, says David Coleman, GRI, broker-owner of Coleman, REALTORS®, in Barrington, R.I.

“Middle performers who’ve tasted the first rung of success might respond well to targeted incentives that help them get to the next level,” says Coleman, whose company affiliates about 100 licensees. “For them, it’s a percentage game. They need to make 25 contacts to get that one lead, so you want to put a carrot in front of them.”

For this group, a set of yard signs may be the perfect incentive, says Mayfield. Because signs, along with the riders that bear the associate’s name, phone number, and photo, can cost a few hundred dollars, Mayfield says they’re very motivating.

Incentives are only one component of the support process. Besides offering associates something, brokers should expect accountability. Without that, associates are at risk of making excuses for drifting away from their goals and falling back into their comfort zone.

Your role is to help them clearly define the tasks they need to perform. That might mean writing an informal contract, for example, saying, “I will make 25 new contacts per week.” But it’s not your role to constantly look over their shoulder.

It’s up to them to recognize that they must pursue more contacts next week to make up for any contacts they failed to make this week. “They have to take responsibility for their own motivation,” says Ashbrook.

At the same time, accountability isn’t a license for brokers to punish associates for failing to meet their goals. If you’ve been supportive and you’ve let them take charge of their efforts, then their failure to reach their goals is punishment enough for them, say brokers.

What’s more, if failure happens often enough, the associates, with no one to blame but themselves, will likely conclude the business isn’t right for them and leave on their own accord. “They’ll be their own toughest critic,” says Coleman.

Motivating new associates

Incentives tied to performance can also work for new associates still trying to build their contacts. For them, providing leads, such as relocation clients, works well because leads are what novices need the most, brokers say.

What you don’t want to do is get caught in a vicious cycle in which new associates rely on incentives to do the things they should be doing on their own. Such a situation could be a red flag that the associates might not be in the right business.

Still, these incentives can serve as a test to help you weed out unmotivated people. “If they’re relying too much on incentives, they may not be serious about the business,” says Mayfield.

If you find people who aren’t serious about developing strong, self-directed work habits, it’s important that you take appropriate action—including saying they might not be a good fit for the office. An overreliance on incentives can start to have a negative spillover effect on your office if the associate breaches ethical safeguards to get the reward.

“If people are just focused on the reward, whether it’s monetary or otherwise, they might start cutting corners,” says Deci. “If you hold up dollar bills, people tend to take the shortest path to get to those dollar bills. That doesn’t serve the common good of the company.”

It’s partly with that risk in mind that Patton emphasizes motivation activities that build teamwork, like all-staff sales meetings that include a lot of praise but no performance-based incentives. “We don’t want motivation to become ‘I’ve got to beat Larry; otherwise he’ll get the prize,’ because that’s when people become ruthless,” he says.

Setting the mood

No matter where they fall on the internal motivation meter, all of your associates will benefit from you setting a positive mood in office. That means giving everyone a sense of structure so that they feel part of a larger entity. If you hold a weekly sales meeting, for example, encourage everyone to attend. Or if you meet one-on-one with associates on a regular basis, don’t leave anyone out. “To not have structure would be neglect,” says Deci.

But avoid making the structure an end in itself, such as punishing people for not being able to make a meeting. People need to feel they’re piloting their own ship.

In practice, that means setting a mood in which associates feel their efforts are recognized: Top performers are praised, modest performers and newbies receive performance-based incentives when appropriate, and everyone is endowed with the autonomy to set goals for themselves.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.

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