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Is the Jerry Maguire “show me the money” incentive really a key workplace motivator?

When someone mentions the mid-90s classic film Jerry Maguire, the first scene to come to mind will probably be Cuba Gooding Jr. repeatedly screaming “show me the money” over the phone. But money may not be the straightforward workplace motivator we expect.
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We’ve all watched the movie and probably even yelled the line a few times for good measure. To be frank, money would always be part of the job calculation, but, unlike the famous scene suggests, the amount of cash you earn may not be as high up on the list as most expect.

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Since the movie’s release, Rod Tidwell changed the sports world forever. Now on par with Gordon Gekko, who’s “greed is good” speech emboldened investors and hedge fund managers in real life, the NFL sports star transformed the relationship between agents and sports professionals and how they would be paid.

Read more about fictional characters and companies:

Agents’ negotiation deals no longer merely revolve around a sport stars performance, but also their entertainment value

That’s not bad given the fact that, unlike Jerry Maguire being based on Leigh Steinberg, Tidwell is a fictional character.

But this may not always be the right approach. And, essentially, none of this would have happened had Tom Cruise not first uttered the words: “What can I do for you?”

To get the best of your workforce, this is a key question for any business leader when it comes to productivity and staff motivation.

According to the CIPD, employers could increase employee motivation by understanding the science behind the impact of pay and reward on employee behaviour.

Essentially, employees’ perceptions of rewards are defined by the circumstances in which they are received. For example, a bonus received during tough economic times will be perceived as having much greater value than the same reward given in times of prosperity. On the other hand, a bonus may be perceived as having less value if the recipient considers their own performance to be stronger than other employees who receive the same amount as part of a team reward.

Jonny Gifford, research adviser at the CIPD, said: “We need to recognise employees when they go the extra mile and add increased value, but there are a number of behavioural factors that should be considered when shaping a reward programme. Crucially, we must acknowledge that monetary rewards aren’t everything and that they can even distort people’s motivation. For example, enticing the workforce with financial incentives and a strong bonus culture can lead to unwanted, risky and even unethical behaviours. 

“Equally, because we tend to overestimate our ability as individuals, many if not most people find performance-based pay attractive in the first instance, but ultimately disappointing and demotivating. The key is having a flexible reward package that takes into account behavioural nuances and doesn’t rely solely on a wad of cash as the only means to motivate staff. It’s a change in direction for many but should also be welcome news for organisations who, in a challenging economic context, need to be more creative with their rewards package.”

The report also noted that recognition through symbolic awards – for example, through employee award schemes or discretionary ad-hoc gifts from line managers – are “consistent with a workforce whose desire to succeed is self-sustaining, rather than driven by a desire to earn more money”. 

Time and timeliness are key aspects explored in the CIPD’s report. It references a study by Zedelius, which found that when people were promised reward for a later task, they started to perform better at intermediate tasks, even when those weren’t subject to a reward. It also explores the difference in perception between instant gratification and rewards that are of equal value but deferred, such as pension contributions. This difference is starkest among the youngest workers, who place the least value on pension contributions and other benefits deferred to later life.

Charles Cotton, performance and reward adviser at the CIPD, said: “Workplace pension schemes boost employee pay packets by thousands of pounds over the course of their employment but without the instant gratification of seeing that money land in their bank accounts each month, many employees fail to value the schemes. When it comes to reward, it’s important that businesses regularly reinforce the total value of the package that they offer to individuals and pay equal attention to both short and long-term rewards. This can include communication and education, but should form part of a well-thought out financial wellbeing strategy.”

With such a range of factors in play, the best reward strategies take into account both individual and group success, while not being overly complicated. By rewarding people for their individual performance as well as their contribution to a specific team or the overall company’s success, a business is most likely to see improved engagement, enhanced performance and good citizenship behaviours.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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