Businesses work when teams work. Today, even star performers have to work as part of a team. But corporate incentive programs often recognize individual contributions more than teamwork. Praising only your solo stars is a common mistake — one that contributes to a competitive, toxic culture. But finding ways to recognize both the stand-out stars and the teams that support them? That leads to great collaboration — and great culture.

“Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” — Vince Lombardi


So how do you design corporate incentive programs that both encourage individual performance and build team spirit?

We have seven suggestions. (And they don’t cost anything!)

  1. Encourage team members to recognize each other. This study on prosocial bonuses showed that teams perform better when members get to reward each other compared to when management just rewards individuals directly.
  2. Recognize your self-sacrificers. Research shows that every successful team has one member who may not live up to their individual potential because they’re busy helping other team members do better. While many companies overlook the value of this self-sacrificer because their individual metrics appear paltry, their work is critical to boost everyone else’s performance. Recognizing the value of the team supporter will help everyone perform better.
  3. Dedicate 50% of your corporate incentive programs to team recognition. While it’s tempting to give the majority of your recognition to star performers – there’s often a whole team behind that performer helping to make them successful. To feed a sense of fairness, Michael Schrage (from MIT’s Sloane School of Business) recommends at least a 50% split between individuals and teams.
  4. Have employees take time off – and back each other up. A Harvard Business Review study showed that a group of bankers who were forced to take time off ended up working better as a team – because they had to strategize on making sure that no balls were dropped when a teammate was out of the office.
  5. Let teams collaborate on awards. We see this in our own office. Being able to pool bonus points together to get a group reward or experience bonds employees – both because the reward is meaningful to the group and because working together to get the reward itself builds stronger relationships.
  6. Use group experiences as rewards instead of just stuff. Experiences are the path to happiness. Include group experiences as a reward to build team performance.
  7. Recognize cross-team collaboration. At times, team performance contests create so much competition between groups that they start siloing from each other. By setting up incentives for cross-team collaboration, you have a chance to unify your culture and keep everyone moving forward.

Putting some or all of these ideas into action will strengthen the connections between your team members – whether they’re on the same team or spread across the company. And that connection is one of the key elements of a great employee experience.

Get more ideas for making your corporate incentive programs more effective in our guide: Reward and Recognition Systems that Work.

Rewards and Incentives for Employees

Download now!
About Kazoo
Kazoo is the employee experience platform powered by the science of motivation and the mission of improving the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time. Founded in 2013, Kazoo grows company culture and improves bottom-line performance metrics through its robust engagement platform that delivers recognition, rewards, incentives, and team insights. Named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017, the Austin-based SaaS company and its technology platform are built on the four pillars of employee experience: connection, meaning, impact and appreciation. To request a demo, visit</a

Not all managers are created equal. In fact, some are just downright bad. However, just because you’re stuck with an incompetent manager doesn’t mean you can’t find other opportunities for mentorship, coaching and professional growth. Even though in the past, managers were the sole gatekeepers to an employee’s opportunities at a company, today’s reality is that employees can have much more control and autonomy even when their own managers are ill equipped to lead. Here’s how employees bypass the inadequacies of their own manager to continually develop:

Seek Coaching from Another Manager

When it’s clear your manager either isn’t equipped or isn’t interested in coaching, pursue other mentors in the organization. Because work today is often done across departments and teams, it’s possible you’ve interacted with managers who aren’t your own. Take advantage of those relationships and ask for their feedback on your performance. They might be better equipped to identify strengths and weaknesses you or your manager otherwise might not see.

Pursue Feedback from Your Peers

By feedback, we don’t mean “gossip about your incompetent manager together.” Instead, solicit feedback from the people you work with most often. Sometimes when managers don’t give feedback, it’s not because they’re incompetent – it’s because they’re not familiar with the work you’re actually doing on a daily basis. When you get feedback from your peers, share it with your manager so they have more understanding of your contributions to the team and potential areas for improvement.

Take Control of Your Own Development

Even with a great manager, taking ownership of goal-setting and performance a good way to show and continually add value. No good manager wants to micromanage your progress anyways so why not put yourself in charge of setting, tracking and adjusting your goals? On top of that, stretch yourself and set goals that are out of your comfort zone. Even if you don’t achieve them, you better know your skills, strengths and limitations.

Have you ever had a bad manager? How have you worked around their shortcomings to perform well?

HR leaders recognize the importance of employee engagement strategies and the emergence of technology solutions facilitating them. But these initiatives often stall, sputter out and eventually die when they reach the executive suite. Why? It’s been difficult to articulate the benefits of an employee engagement solution when leadership clings to common misconceptions about the problem and how it can be solved. Here are three of them and how they can be addressed:

You think HRIS can handle employee engagement.

Traditional HRIS accommodates training, payroll, compliance and recruiting, among other processes. These systems were designed to relieve administrative burden on HR. When it became clear that performance management automation was necessary, many HRIS providers merely bolted on a clunky and time-consuming solution — frustrating HR administrators, managers and employees alike. So while an HRIS might have performance-related functionalities, they are not best-in-class solutions that truly enhance performance and increase engagement. Bleeding edge solutions give employees control of everything from recognition to goal-setting to ongoing development. Companies that utilize outdated and ineffective technologies that don’t allow talent to continually adjust and improve their performance will fall by the wayside.

You think your company is too big for organization-wide change.

According to CEB analysis, “Change is just as hard – if not harder – for a company’s leaders… In fact, leaders are more likely to resist change — whether vocally or quietly — than other employees.” The same CEB report found that the average firm has undergone five organization-wide changes in the last three years. For many executives, the thought of implementing an employee engagement technology sounds daunting. However, research has shown that employees crave deeper engagement in their workplace through more frequent performance feedback. Coupled with their expectation that workplace technologies provide the same ease-of-use as consumer applications, a real-time approach to engagement and performance is an organization-wide change employees will more readily embrace.

You don’t think employee engagement affects business outcomes.

The term “employee engagement” means something different to every company so it’s been even more difficult to calculate its importance. One blogger referred to increasing employee engagement as building “emotional capital.” Research has shown that companies that have invested building this “emotional capital” through ongoing employee engagement have experienced:

  • Better profitability: Companies with highly engaged workforce outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share. (Gallup)
  • Lower turnover: Employees who received strengths feedback had turnover rates that were 14.9% lower than for employees who received no feedback. (Gallup)
  • More customer loyalty: Companies with an employee engagement program have 233% greater customer loyalty than those that do not. (Aberdeen)

Simply addressing these misconceptions likely isn’t enough to convince your C-suite to mark employee engagement initiatives as strategic a strategic priority. To help them take the next step, download our eBook, “Secure C-Suite Buy-In for an Employee Engagement Platform.”

The predictable irrationality of human beings is something that never ceases to amaze me. Dan Ariely paints this picture for us in a way that surely leaves us all slapping our foreheads, wondering how we, too, fall prey to irrational lines of thinking on a regular basis.

Nowhere is this more evident than when we are facing hard times with our businesses – when the economy is in a temporary decline, or competition has released a better product and sales are stalling. Or maybe that same competition is stealing your best sales reps by touting a better culture and a chance to be on the next rocket ship to the moon.

What do we do? Time and time again, I see people making a choice to cut back on the things that are keeping your best people around in the first place: culture.

Have you heard the saying, penny-wise but pound-foolish? That’s when we do something that saves us a little bit of money now, but ends up costing us big in the future. Let’s look at this saying in the context of the rock-and-a-hard-place dilemmas many businesses find themselves in: making personnel cuts during hard times in order to survive. While cuts may be necessary, are you looking at how some of those cuts themselves compromise your company’s ability to thrive down the line and win in the long run?

The question is, how can we be pound-wise, especially during difficult times? It’s easier said than done, to be sure, to keep our heads when the market is soft, when acquisitions and mergers are triggering reorganizations and layoffs and impacting business efficiencies, or when changing consumer habits lead to an industry-wide restructuring.

Right now, one industry that’s finding itself in flux is the retail industry. Many retailers are facing difficult times and their businesses are going through a painful transition.

Traditionally the knee-jerk reaction from businesses during times like this is one, cut your marketing spend and two, cut your HR spend. Those are usually the first to go.

I view this decision as a good move for metrics management today, but not a great leadership move for the long-term. If you want to keep your people, and keep them engaged and performing during difficult transitions, then communicating your commitment to the success of the team, of the business, and the long-term mission is exactly what your folks need to hear. So the areas you’re tempted to cut are exactly the ones you’re going to need operating at a stronger and more effective level than ever before.

HR can help you get through these times and prepare your workforce to face the future as a united team. Let’s say you’re behind in numbers and you’ve got to make cuts across the board, wherever you can find them. Headcounts, systems – everywhere. And now think about how the team is feeling because of this. Morale is down. People are wondering, what’s happening to my team, my department, my boss – and am I next?

As a result, productivity weakens, fear is high, and those people you’ve chosen to keep may decide to leave.

Remember that a big part of leading through change is giving employees exactly what keeps them motivated and engaged despite the changes, and helps them see the light at the end of the tunnel. One way to do this is to keep in mind what employees want, day in and day out. We’ve distilled it down to the four pillars of employee experience: connection, meaning, impact, and appreciation. Sometimes those are delivered in the form of an affirmation of your company’s vision and mission. Sometimes it’s a thank you.

And sometimes, it’s as simple as meaningful feedback for the work they are doing to contribute:

When you choose to cut budget that delivers these things to reduce some expense in the short-term, the impact can be costly in the long-term, and felt by many. Let me paint the real cost to you when this happens:

  • 50% of your staff may not stay, or may not stay as long as they would have if they felt more appreciated.
  • Failing to provide regular feedback and recognition can dramatically affect your rate of retention and turnover.
  • Lack of gratitude, culture, or connection to a purpose can factor heavily into why employees today choose to stay or go.
  • Based on the findings in Gallup’s State of the Workplace 2017, it’s clear that removing – or not investing in the first place – in systems that create a culture of engagement is bad for long-term costs:

As a CEO, I recognize that cuts still need to be made; but also as a CEO, I’m a fan of making decisions with my eyes wide open. If the logic is sound, and cutting people-programs is clearly in your best interest, then that’s the decision that needs to be made. But be aware of the alternative view on this logic – a view that suggests making cuts to programs that clearly impact morale, the culture, and one’s ability to stay engaged throughout the tough times may be the very definition of an act that is penny-wise but pound-foolish.

A solid approach to engagement is critical to maintaining company cohesiveness, communication during a time when people are scared, and a sense of community and culture when your business needs it most. Whether or not you use Kazoo to achieve these goals, consider keeping (and even investing more in) your current people and HR programs.

You can manage the expenses today, but you can’t lead the team to win tomorrow by being penny-wise but pound-foolish. In the long term, our survival depends on our ability to grow our connections to our colleagues and our commitment to core values as we weather the current storms.

About Autumn Manning
Autumn Manning is one of the happiest CEO’s in the world. She spends her days surrounded by a smart team at Kazoo and combines her background in behavioral psychology, human capital management, and building corporate culture to create the world’s best employee experience platform. LinkedIn Twitter

About Kazoo
Kazoo is the employee experience platform powered by the science of motivation and the mission of improving the lives of employees everywhere, one company at a time. Founded in 2013, Kazoo grows company culture and improves bottom-line performance metrics through its robust engagement platform that delivers recognition, rewards, incentives, and team insights. Named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures in 2017, the Austin-based SaaS company and its technology platform are built on the four pillars of employee experience: connection, meaning, impact and appreciation. To request a demo, visit

The search for different types of awards for employees starts with one bold action.

Ditch the gift card cabinet.

You know the one we mean. The gift card cabinet is a common catch-all for employee rewards and recognition at all too many companies – very likely, including yours. Tasked with celebrating small successes day to day, HR managers reach in and pull out gift cards for coffee shops, steakhouses, or hardware stores.
It's time to ditch the gift card cabinet in favor of different types of awards for employees.
We’re not saying gift cards are bad or employees don’t appreciate being recognized — done right, they can make the perfect gift. Plus, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Right! And those thoughts are exactly why we need to stop reaching into the gift card cabinet. How much thought went into hastily handing a coffee card to Jane, who, it so happens, is currently avoiding caffeine on doctor’s orders? What does Jim, a lifelong vegan, think when the company awards him a steakhouse certificate?

If you’re relying too heavily on generic gift cards or one-size-fits-all rewards, your efforts might be backfiring. And let’s not forget that you’ve got to keep track of these cards for tax purposes and keep managers informed about which of their team members have received awards, when they received them, and why. Not to mention figuring out how to factor the receipt of rewards into an employee’s performance review and overall career path.

On top of that, consider the missed opportunity: Gift cards alone don’t give you the ability to foster a sense of connection between people at your company, which – along with feeling appreciated – is something employees really want.

There’s a better way.

Studies show there are clear benefits to embracing different types of awards for employees.

Below, we’ll summarize studies that explain why different types of awards for employees are effective, alert you to some red flags to watch out for, and recommend ideas that will help you close your gift card cabinet forever.

Award entire teams

What studies say: When done right, team awards have been shown to increase trust and cooperation among co-workers and foster collaboration, teamwork, and motivation in the long run.

What we recommend: Make sure your employee rewards program offers flexibility and customization. Tailoring different types of awards for employees and their teams is key if you want to boost collaboration and motivation.

What to be wary of: Avoid rigid rewards programs that don’t let your company easily customize and update its awards catalog. A one-size-fits-all approach to team awards won’t work — certain incentives, for instance, may fall flat with the Finance team but they’ll create a big bang with the techies in Engineering.

Include non-monetary experiences

What studies say: In a recent study of generations in the workforce, the Incentives Research Foundation found that experiences serve as effective employee awards — especially for Millennials, who prefer experiences to monetary items.

“For rewards and incentives, I would emphasize
experiences more than anything…”

— Buddy Hobart, Author, Millennials and the Evolution of Leadership

What we recommend: Mix up your rewards catalog. There’s no reason gift cards, products, and custom experiences can’t coexist. In fact, this approach is essential for rewards and recognition systems that work.

What to be wary of: When picking an employee rewards platform, approach any that solely push products with caution. Not only does a lack of customization hurt the effectiveness of your program, these platforms often make money by adding a markup to the products offered.

Be budget friendly

What studies say: If bringing in different types of awards for employees sounds costly, here’s some good news: it doesn’t have to be. Recent research has shown that even tiny rewards can motivate people to go the extra mile, a lesson experts believe leaders can apply to their businesses.

What we recommend: Embrace simple, budget-friendly reward ideas in your catalog. These can bring out your company’s culture in creative, meaningful ways that don’t cost a dime (think practical, like earning a half day off, or culture-boosting, like getting to choose your manager’s facial hair style for the month).

What to be wary of: Generic rewards solutions that offer bland (and often expensive) awards for milestones or successes. These tend to focus more on the perks, not the people, and prevent your awards from enhancing the company culture.

When considering different types of awards for employees, companies should focus on their people, not perks. With a mix of awards that are tailored to individuals and teams, incorporate experiences, and don’t break the bank, you’ll see big improvements in the overall employee experience.

You won’t find that in the gift card cabinet.

As an evidence-based person, I like to see what science has to say about subjects that are important to me. If you’re of a like mind, it may interest you to know that science has long suggested that rewards and incentives for employees can easily backfire. Gifts, trophies, and other types of “extrinsic motivation” can be a bummer instead of a boost — and, if you can believe it, sometimes they actually spread unhappiness.

Which is the exact opposite of what you want.

You may be asking yourself, how can this be? One reason is that extrinsic motivationmeaning rewards that someone else gives you — can rob your job of meaning.

Kazoo designed our employee experience platform around the science of motivation, and we’ve tested it out with more than 110,000 users. So we’re familiar with what works and what doesn’t.

We’ve also created a handy guide filled with science-based tips for motivating employees:

Rewards and Incentives for Employees
View here!
What works? Intrinsic motivation. That’s when you want to do something for its own sake. You know the feeling: when the work you’re doing feels propelled by its own momentum and accomplishing your goals feels good and meaningful.

And it turns out that intrinsic motivation leads to better job performance than extrinsic motivation. Studies show that employees who are focused on outside rewards (even salary!) just don’t have as much fun or bring as much creativity to their jobs.

Intrinsic motivation is a stronger predictor of job performance than extrinsic motivation.

— Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

So, does this mean rewards and incentives for employees are useless? Not at all.

What it means is that successful reward and recognition systems foster intrinsic motivation. Our research shows that systems that enable these four actions support intrinsic motivation:

  1. Give meaningful, positive recognition.
  2. Help employees challenge themselves.
  3. Help your team work well together.
  4. Give people choice over what they do.

And these four actions, in turn, drive business results. So keep them in mind when you’re designing rewards and incentives for employees.


About Kazoo:
Kazoo is a SaaS HR technology platform that redefines the way companies engage with their employees. By providing tools to connect, reward, reveal and report in real-time, Kazoo can consolidate employee engagement initiatives into one, easy-to-use mobile platform for teams of all sizes. Since launching in 2012, Kazoo has delivered its flexible software to small enterprises and Fortune 500 brands across several industries. Visit for more information or schedule a quick demo here.

There’s something magical that happens when we wholeheartedly thank someone in a meaningful way — I mean a flow-blown THANK YOU that comes from the heart. The magic occurs on both the giving and receiving ends.

According to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, the “magic” of gratitude isn’t magic at all. Feelings of gratitude trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to enjoyment, focus, and euphoria.

That feeling you get when giving and receiving recognition is the essence of Kazoo. It’s real. It’s authentic. And, it leads to a virtuous cycle.

So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. That’s how the virtuous cycle gets created.

— Alex Korb, PhD, UCLA

Last week, we received some dopamine-enhancing recognition from an employee at one of our customers’ companies. His name is Dan, and he works for CLEAResult, the leading provider of energy efficiency services in North America with nearly 3000 employees in 60 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

I just wanted to say thank you. The Kazoo point system is a really fun and helpful thing for my family and me. Each summer I cash in some points and use them for summer necessities for my kids. This year is no exception. Bathing suits and shorts are on our list this time around. I just wanted to say thank you; this really takes some pressure off when you have a big family. Have a great day.” –
Daniel Brunet, CLEAResult

We shared Dan’s note within our organization and it reinforced to many of us why we do what we do. It goes back to the essence of our reward and recognition system: that feeling you get when someone lets you know you made a difference. It’s what makes us all give 101% each day building, servicing, and marketing Kazoo.

I had a chance to follow up with Dan and asked if we could share his story. He was game and answered a few questions for us. We also created a short video so Dan could see the faces and voices of the people he touched.


Hey, Dan. Can you tell us what you do?

Dan: I’m a residential energy auditor. I go into a residential home and perform an energy assessment to help homeowners decide what the top priorities for reducing their energy costs are. It involves a lot of data collection, some diagnostic testing and also health and safety testing. I then create a report which is sent to the homeowner through an energy advisor who helps them moving forward. For me, it’s about educating the homeowner about how their house works as a system. Building Science is so fun!
It sounds like family is a top priority for you. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Dan: Yes, my family is the top priority for me and my local managers have been and continue to be very supportive of this. I have three small kids, so it’s critical for me to have some flexibility in my work schedule. Small kids are walking Petri dishes; you never know when one is going to be sick.

I’m very lucky that my managers allow me to audit in the mornings and work in the office in the afternoon. This allows me to be more flexible with after school activities, doctors appointments, and overall house chaos. There is no way I would be able to maintain the consistency I have in my work/life balance without the support of my managers. They have always said “family first,” and I’m very grateful for that.
What do you love about your experience working for CLEAResult out of the Boulder, CO office?

Dan: It’s Boulder Colorado! What’s not to love? Honestly, it’s great; the Boulder office is fully staffed with amazing people who are so passionate about energy efficiency, it’s hard not to feed off that vibe.

What I think is so interesting is that the entire staff comes from different educational backgrounds, but they all share a similar passion, and somehow we all found our way here. The whole team shares ideas, technical questions and community-based activities. We also have a “green team” that organizes activities that help the local Boulder community. They recently held a cleanup event on Earth Day, and it was a huge success.
How does CLEAResult unify employees across a variety of locations, so they feel connected to the core company culture?

Dan: This is a difficult question because it is very hard to do that. For example, I’m on a team of 10 members, in two cities. Most of the auditors are in the field for a good portion of the day doing assessments, so we struggle with staying connected on a daily basis. Our manager, Francis Xavier, does an excellent job of making sure we have at least a bi-weekly team meeting and a bi-monthly team training where we get together as a group and further our technical skills. Also, we will have visiting managers from other offices come to Boulder for various reasons, and they really make a huge effort to introduce themselves to our staff.

Another aspect I’ve always thought was great is that if other CLEAResult employees have field visits in the Boulder area and need a place to work for a couple of hours, they will come here or our staff might need to spend some time at the Denver office in between their field visits. There is always an open spot when needed.

Finally, we also have a corporate newsletter that comes out each Friday called the Weekly Wire. This form of communication is a great opportunity to see what is going on in different offices throughout the country. The Weekly Wire also spotlights a different CLEAResult employee each week which is fun.
Can you share a recognition post you received (via Kazoo) that made you feel great? Why did it make you feel great?

Dan: Hmmm, recently, I received some recognition from a co-worker who was leaving for a new life experience in Europe, and he sent each of the technical team members a nice message thanking us for our help with technical issues and questions. That was pretty cool I thought. Also, recently I received a thank you message from a program manager for a small side table I had built, and she uses it next to her desk for various things. I thought that was nice.
Finally, and most importantly, what are your plans for this summer’s family vacation?

Dan: So we have a couple of things going this summer. First, we are planning to spend a few days in Grand Lake, Colorado this June. In July we head to Michigan for our “big family trip.” This is the event each year that I usually cash in my Kazoo points. Generally, I have saved enough points throughout the year that we can get all the sunscreen, bathing suits, snacks and car ride activities we need for our trip. This is a huge benefit for a family of five. Have you priced kids sunscreen lately? It’s ridiculous.
On behalf of everyone here at Kazoo, we want to express our gratitude to Dan. He’s one of over 100,000+ people that send and receive recognition every day on our reward and recognition system. And, he’s the one that spread his positive vibes our way last week and made us all feel great!