Incentive and recognition have become exceptionally sophisticated both in terms of strategy and execution.

That’s the first takeaway from interviews with Paul Hebert of Creative Group and Michelle Smith from O.C. Tanner – two industry trailblazers who bring an extraordinary level of insight to any conversation.

Those insights included an understanding of how to differentiate incentive from recognition, and what’s next for a workforce where the term “employee” is becoming a more flexible term.

Paul Hebert – Senior Director, Solutions Architecture, Creative Group

Paul HebertTo get a sense of the way Paul Hebert perceives recognition and incentive, you’d have to take him bowling.

“I like to use this analogy,” he begins. “Recognition is like the gutters in the bowling alley. If you keep the ball between those two sides – you’ll score points.” In other words, recognition represents fixed and constant parts of your organization. “Recognition should attack those things you hope never change – behaviors, values and attitudes like honesty, ethics, mission and  value.” As long as you stay between the gutters of these things, recognition is a powerful tool.

Incentive, on the other hand, is represented by the arrows on the floor of that bowling alley. You use the arrows to guide your direction. In other words, “you apply specific interventions to desired outcomes.”

But determining whether your organization needs recognition or incentive is a tactical discussion, expresses Hebert. Before you get to tactics, you want to ask a key question.

“What drives performance in your organization.”

He explains that it often seems that organizations are looking for that “silver bullet” to drive engagement or retention – but there really isn’t a simple formula to follow. Every organization and culture requires its own set of strategies and tactics to drive behaviors, performance and results.

He suggests looking within your culture to determine those behaviors, performances and results. “Take the top five people in your company – and find out what they’re doing differently. Those are the behaviors that should stay.” He also suggests that there are behaviors that should be excised. “What are people who are under performing doing differently? Analyze those behaviors.”

The goal is for companies to understand that it’s not as simple as putting a recognition or incentive program into place.“ Human beings are the most variable resource a company has,” he says, reinforcing his point. “You can’t do Six Sigma. If somebody says “Maslow” again, my head is going to explode.” Understand your culture then apply the strategies and tactics that make a difference.

One of the key things that companies learn from customizing initiatives to meet the culture is that it’s not simply about rewarding the top 5% of sales performers. Until people focus on the “why” of incentive and recognition “you’re going to get confused clients and bad programs.”

Michelle Smith – Vice President, Marketing – O.C. Tanner

Michelle SmithThe future of incentive and recognition is going to lead to some fascinating conversations says Michelle Smith. “I’m excited about the future of our industry,” she begins, before sharing some of those conversations.

“40% of workers are temporary or contracted – and that’s growing at 30% a year. People in our industry aren’t really aware of that,” she says. “Here is a fantastic opportunity. We have a talent war and we need to get people engaged.” She suggests including everyone who works within an organization through programs that engage, such as onboarding, recognition and incentive. “This increases the engagement level – and it sells your brand to them.”

In a similar manner, the increase in teams that are project specific and often geographically diverse needs addressing by the industry. “I call this the Hollywood mode. It’s this little sub culture that comes together like professionals come together for a film.” She explains that this temporary, team based approach requires its own thinking around strategies for engagement and performance.

She also sees recognition and incentive holding value for the growing sharing economy, “It might be great for Uber that they don’t have any employees, but we have to find ways to protect and engage those people.”

Finally, there’s a real interest in the field of neuroscience, and how it affects employees and customers. “The best way to earn customer loyalty is to improve employee engagement.” The goal is to understand the neuroscience of employees to create a culture that positively affects the customer experience.

From Michelle’s perspective, these issues are new, more sophisticated and increasingly important. They require courage on the part of everyone within the industry to think beyond easy solutions that generate short-term revenue. “We are ambassadors for our profession and we can’t lose sight of that.” She challenges herself and her colleagues to “not roll over” for the sake of “the sale”. The industry is becoming very advanced, and that means the need for more leadership and training on best practices to design recognition and incentive programs that are culturally aligned and drive measurable business results.

About Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert , Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc  focuses on helping clients influence behaviors and drive business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. A speaker and contributing author of 4 books and many articles, Paul is widely recognized as an expert on motivation and incentives. He is one of the founding contributing editors to, a contributing writer on the Fistful of Talent blog, the social media editor for the Enterprise Engagement Alliance and hosts Engagement Radio for Engagement Strategies Media.

About Michelle Smith 

Named as one of the ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle Smith, CPIM, CRP is Vice-President Marketing for O.C. Tanner. A respected authority on leadership, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.