Understanding the rewards that work for your goals

Understanding the rewards that work for your goals

Reward pathway in the brain – via Khan Academy Medicine http://www.khanacademy.org/science/healthcare-and-medicine for health and medicine content. These videos do not provide medical advice and are for informational purposes only. The videos are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Why we need rewards



Do you complete tasks that leave you with little or no satisfaction in your personal life or at work?

The type of tasks that come to mind include spreadsheet reports in an office, the empty boxes that need clearing away in a factory warehouse or hanging the clothes out to dry after a wash cycle has finished at home. There is also the occasions when even challenging tasks and goals leave you feeling empty once they done. This is where and when rewards should become implemented for continual motivation and satisfaction of progressive results.

The challenge with rewards is to strike the correct balance between effort and appropriate gratification. This article explores the use of rewards seeking a positive outcome.

You will see that rewards can be negative or positive and still meet the correct result in a sustained manner.

I have taken time to explore recent studies and share some experiences and new ideas developing in the world of cognitive science and behavior science to identify the best mixed approach for reward implementation at work and in your personal live.

These approaches are far reaching that work across different age groups, genders and cultures to a varying degree.

The use of reward punishment

Police behavior

Police behavior

No one receives a letter from the police to say they drove safe or within the speed limits. This is the minimum expected performance and breach of the rule, results in punishment on those caught exceeding speed limits or violating traffic regulations.

Similar experiences are observed within many work places. Staff are only approached and provided feedback when negative performance occurs. 

There is a surprising amount of research to back and support the claims to use punishment as a tool for goal performance and motivation. Washington University in St. Louis discovered punishment worked better than rewards when asking students to perform a boring random computer game. The results indeed showed that punishment was 2/3 times more effective than rewards. “Objectively, you’d think that winning 25 cents would have the same magnitude effect as losing 25 cents, but that’s not what we find” Jan Kubanek, Ph.D. a post-doctoral research associate at Washington University School of Medicine.

SPECIAL TIP: For goal setting an app that embraces this theme then StickK is a popular tool. It asks you to set a goal, create the stakes (punishment), ask for a referee and encourages you to seek support. The tool has proven effective for many people. The purpose of this App is powerful. If you do not fulfill the obligations of your task or goal pledge, then a financial sum of money becomes paid to someone or a cause. The most effective selection is a cause that you despise! – Note JAMSO has no affiliation with this service

Finding the moments that matter



A question with rewards for motivation is defining the best delivery and timing. Should you receive a reward for good behavior at different stages or at the start of the goal, pre-defined date or at the goal completion?

The answer may be more complex than you think.

For instance, what happens to the motivation of workers if their pay is provided on a defined productivity level? Well, sales people and production staff frequently regulate their performance according to the reward.

Over a long period of time the reward is then perceived as a right. Their effects tend to fall. This is why we see monthly or quarterly campaigns.

Periodic surprise rewards is an interesting tool to have success over a sustained amount of time. The selected reward is introduced randomly and distributed during key goal progression points. A pool of rewards with a range of values is provided at a specific milestone points. I.e. For a software, business project success milestones become the key trigger to distribute rewards. The reward may be a free ice-cream for all stakeholders, a financial bonus or having all the staff been awarded with a free experience such as a visit to a team events evening, wine tasting or meal for 2 paid by the business for each staff member.



This random reward tool also works great within personal life examples. For peoples personal goals it can be simply a list of ideas placed into a jar. As each personal goal milestone is achieved, a random award is selected from the jar.

Key Note: It is important that the reward is enjoyable, has perceived unique value and acts to reinforce positive habit and behavior. It is not advised to place a cake reward for someone whose goal is to lose weight.

The Happy Bronze Contestant and Winner

Study of Bronze and Silver medalists reveals an interesting insight into goal-setting rewards. The Psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec from Cornell University and Scott Madey from the University of Toledo identify what they define as counterfactual thinking. The insight discovers that Silver medalists felt slightly less satisfied than Bronze medalists. The reasoning is that the Silver medalist tends to look upwards to the “could have been” gold position, as where the Bronze medalist recognizes the success of been recognized in the top 3 and having zero recognition through no reward by coming 4th or other lower placement.

Reader Action Guide: Consider your goals and grade them to help define the best outcome and reward opportunity for longer term success.

Finding rewards that works for you.

I see financially based rewards as treating the symptoms of motivation and not its cause.
— James Doyle - JAMSO

There is no question that motivation and rewards for great performance is important. It is almost unthinkable to suggest to a sales force that they will be rewarded in none financial commissions for their work. This however does not dig deep enough into their work. It is frequently found that even within sales that recognition, extra training offers and status act as vital satisfactory rewards instead of just financial gain. Indeed a clever mix of these produces longer sustained staff retention and motivation.

A report by McKinsey group in 2009 entitled Motivating people: Getting beyond money  highlights some great examples where leader recognition and impact opportunities through task groups can prove to be highly successful.

Grocery store

Grocery store

Within a work environment these types of rewards should not replace the basic need for a solid income and basic financial incomes to normal standards.

There has been a movement in recent years to add more rewards of little value and reduce basic salaries, thus the reward systems break apart and are not motivating.

Finding reward through the work itself and not the long term end goal

I recall a time when I was training my team in India and a question was raised by one of the team “James, how are you so enthusiastic all the time?” I did not need to hesitate with my response “I feel lucky to be alive everyday so I try to do my best”. After many years of travel, climbing and skydiving I appreciate the moments I have and understand they will not last forever. My personal rewards are felt every day in everything I do and that is why I am prepared to give so much free value through these weekly articles.

Flow theory

Flow theory

My answer and description above is not shared by everyone and indeed it has taken many years to reach.

For you there may be a reward by entering a joyful success flow. This is the zone of task or work where you feel energized, challenged but also capable.

Another strategy to work towards similar states includes setting shorter term goals that are clear, specific and attained in hours, minutes or moments.

To help break your goals down it is of a huge advantage to understand some basic project management milestone skills. See the JAMSO dedicated PINTEREST board to help you in for change and project management.

Rewards impacting social media and gaming.

One key area to understand the impact on your goals in today’s world is the time impact of social media for many people. This area alone stands out as possibly the largest hurdle to address free time, expectations and medium/long term concentration levels in people outside of their working lives.

A point to understand is why people spend so much time on social media. Indeed even JAMSO is engaged on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter, so why do we suggest you minimize your time on these and other platforms and what does this have to do with goal rewards?

The social media platforms are worth incredible amounts of money and designed using the very latest of ideas in behavior science, gamification and cognitive theory. The platforms have an aim to gain your attention and use your time so they generate revenue streams through services such as advertising.

Dopamine within the brain

Dopamine within the brain

Social media and gaming companies recognize the methods to maximize your dopamine impacts in your brain to provide instant rewards increase curiosity and deliver an excellent browsing experience.

Your rewards are provided through the basic social content as a base and then expanded with links, news and adverts that reflect your interests and prior behaviors. Thus they become cleverer over time (using machine learning and artificial intelligence analytics) to create an experience unique to you that retains your attention.

  • One study by Allan Reiss from Stanford University discovered that video games activate pleasure across most areas of the brain. Therefore there are strong grounds to consider the use of gamification within any rewards system.

Key Lesson: Well created and designed short term rewards are addictive and gamification holds a significant key to influence goal setting pleasure.

Gamification and rewards.

I already have written a couple of articles about the use and application of gamification. Read my articles here to understand their specific use and applications. The success and extended interest in gamification across all walks of life demonstrates how useful the concept is. Within many cultures and business applications the implementation of gamification needs careful design to avoid an initial negative reaction. People need to feel respected and so your gamification process should be not superficial in its content.

Proportions of risks and rewards

The use of rewards for taking risks is great tool for the people and companies stuck with little change or innovation. The rewards should be given for taking the action and not necessarily the outcomes.

Risky speed

Risky speed

Risks can be managed in 4 options, accepted, transferred, reduced or eliminated and so the consideration of taking the correct risk within goal setting is important.

Risks should be considered at all times with the 4 options in mind and not blindly committed. The rewards should be balanced so high risk gains the highest reward and low risks the lowest rewards. Although this may sound too obvious I have found many cases where high rewards are provided for relative medium risk and thus the incentive to take high risk action is reduced.

What next for rewards.

The theme of this article has been to share with you some of the key areas that effect and affect rewards within the realm of goal setting and performance management. The use of rewards requires a high mix of various considerations from timing to decisions surrounding the appropriate reward to be used.

For many applications in life and business starting with a simple reward scheme will gain some momentum and positive experiences. The key point is to learn from the reactions of yourself and the people within the business and then fine tune in a careful programmed way to design the best effective output possible.

Reader : Thanks for taking the time to be interested in this subject and reading our article. Please now share the article across anyone of your social media platforms

James Doyle - JAMSO Chief Rewards Officer

James Doyle - JAMSO Chief Rewards Officer

JAMSO helps people and companies transform their performance. We lead in the areas of goal setting, goal management, metrics and performance management.

Further Reward Reading and Reference

  1. Motivation to Pursue Dreams and Hopes: Understanding the Brain's Reward System via University of California TV. Sheri Johnson, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, explores neurobiological, cognitive, emotional, and social triggers of mania, with a focus on the reward system

  2. The psychology of self-motivation | Scott Geller | TEDxVirginiaTech

  3. Rewards that drive high performance

  4. The behavior behind rewards and motivations – gaming and wearables

  • Written by James Doyle, founder of JAMSO. We have over 200 free articles, tools and resources for your success.

Extra Bonus Reward for reading so far, enjoy the below quote

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