by Leo Jakobson | January 04, 2018
By and large, incentive reward recipients would prefer to be given their rewards by their immediate manager, in a small ceremony attended by their immediate co-workers.

But how you go about presenting an incentive, of any type, can be difficult to figure out as it does depend on the individual receiving it to a fair degree. That question is the subject of the latest research paper from the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), "Reward Presentation and Attraction: A Biometric Experiment."

And it does matter, a lot. Some years ago, while working for a different company, I reached a fifth anniversary and was given a service award gift. It was a beautiful, elegant business card holder from Tiffany & Co., made of butter soft black leather from Spain with that information embossed on the inside in silver, and contained in the instantly recognizable blue box. That was well over a decade ago, and as I sit writing this, it is less than a foot away from me in a desk drawer, in as pristine condition as I have been able to keep it. 

Despite that, my then-employer got a very small loyalty bump out of me for a gift I clearly think very highly of. The reason is simple: the presentation -- or lack thereof -- consisted of a yellow interoffice envelope sitting on my chair when I returned from lunch one day. Neither my boss nor my co-workers knew about it, and I didn't tell them. The presentation said very clearly that this service program -- and my service -- was something the company didn't actually care very much about. That is, in a nutshell, why incentive industry experts put so much emphasis on the presentation of any service award. It matters. 

For the IRF research, an (admittedly small) group of 42 people of varying age, gender, and profession were asked to listen to four recordings describing realistic descriptions of themselves being presented with an incentive reward. Their reactions were recorded, looking at two well-established measures of like and dislike. One was pupil dilation, as our eyes grow wider or smaller based upon likes and dislikes.

The other measure looks at people's tendency to subtly move their bodies towards something they like and away from something they dislike. This behavior (which scientists call BIS/BAS, if you feel like Googling it) explains why we sidle up to people we are attracted to and shrink away from those we dislike. Together these unconscious reactions tell a lot about our opinions.

This study is a companion to the IRF's recent study on reward preference, which found a distinct preference for non-cash awards. Maritz sponsored both studies.

The four scenarios were: 

Big Show -- in front of the entire company and delivered by the CEO
Little Show - in front of their work group and presented by the immediate manager
Peer-to-Peer -- immediate co-workers presented the reward, with only the work group in attendance
Private -- a private, personal note from the CEO accompanying the reward

The little show was appreciated by the most participants -- 86 percent -- compared to 79 percent for peer-to-peer, 77 percent for big show, and 70 percent for private. Which are all fairly close.

But differences appear when you break the results down by demographics. Generation X participants put a big show and little show tied for their favorite method, while fully 30 percent of Millennials actively disliked the big show, and ranked peer-to-peer as their No. 1 choice. Significantly more Gen. Xers found a little show stimulating than Millennials did, and that is reversed for peer-to-peer. 

Men had big show and little show tied for first place, while woman ranked the big show No. 3, with 37 percent displaying neutral or negative reactions to that scenario. Both group ranked the private note from the CEO last, although women's reactions were far more negative than men's reactions.

Surprisingly, perhaps, both sales and non-sales employees preferred a little show and ranked the CEO note last. But non-sales employees were far more positive about both a big and little show that sales employees. Salespeople were far more bullish on a peer-to-peer presentation. 

"This study provides new and deeper insight into reward-earner preference -- at both the conscious and unconscious levels -- in the presentation of rewards and recognition," said. "Some people prefer a great deal of pomp and ceremony when they are recognized, while others prefer just a verbal or written note of appreciation along with the reward that accompanies it," says Melissa Van Dyke, president of the IRF. "Ultimately, our results demonstrate a highly-individualized range of preference."

More detail about the "Reward Presentation and Attraction: A Biometric Experiment" study can be found here.