Want your workplace rewards to work? Build them around moments, not things

If you died tonight… what would be your favourite moment at work? Hmm? No, wait. First, let’s eliminate what it won’t be. It won’t be the day your boss awkwardly said, “Good job”. Nor will it be the night you received the Awards Night plaque (where did you put that?). And it definitely won’t be the cash you were given (which was much needed, but quickly disappeared into the black hole of daily essentials).

No, they’re not the stuff of great moments. So… what are?

To answer that, let’s do a little digging around in your collective psyche. It could be said that for most of human history, two things have been a certainty: people’s lives were primarily filled with ‘experiences’ like hunting a sabre-tooth tiger, being rescued from the Titanic or discovering the Americas; and that regardless of whether they were good or bad, those same experiences became much talked-about (and thought-about) moments in time.

In contrast, a century of consumerism has overtaken your life and filled it with more and more ‘things’. Coincidentally (or perhaps, predictably) there’s less satisfaction with work and people are now searching for rewards – both personal and professional that have greater meaning and are longer lasting in effect.

Studies by Cornell University have shown that experiences, not things, are the answer. They’ve even shown that unpleasant experiences – getting lost in a foreign country, having a rain-sodden holiday or eating meals you hated – are (in hindsight) valued more than a material possession. Who’d a thunk it?

So let’s look at how the research can influence your wokplace rewards program:

Your glee wanes

It boils down to what’s called the Easterlin paradox. What’s that? It means money makes you happy, but only up to a certain point. Yes, no matter the glory of your reward or acquisition, you’ll very quickly adapt to your shiny new objects and their comforts. You’ll take them for granted. You’ll even become… unhappy with them. (Gasp! You mean to say my beautiful new Oroton handbag will make me miserable?!). Well, not quite.

Dr Thomas Gilovich, psychology professor at Cornell University who’s been studying money and happiness for over two decades, told Fast Company, "One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them."

The same applies for rewards and recognition. As nice as cash, cars and plaques are, the glory and glee of a feature-comparable item wanes over time and more easily drives up dissatisfaction, once those inevitable comparisons begin (“What colour is yours?”).

But your glow grows

As counterintuitive as it seems, as time goes on your joy and satisfaction with an intangible experience, actually grows. Why? Life experiences become part of your identity, character and ‘body of work’. They say more about you than your collection of objects and they’re the things you remember, not the cash you were given to recognise your sales achievements.

Over time, even stressful or scary experiences turn into funny stories that are enjoyed and shared as happy memories or valuable lessons. You connect with people over shared experiences and memories, and as Gilovich says, “We consume experiences directly with other people, and after [the moment’s] gone, they're part of the stories that we tell to one another."

happy sailor

RedBalloon experience: America's Cup yacht sailing

What does that all mean?

Material lust doesn’t last. Experiences do.

When structuring your rewards and recognition program, talk to RedBalloon – the experts in giving, sharing and living. With more than 3500 curated experiences ranging from tandem skydives, gourmet wine tastings, Ferrari driving, bridge climbs or a seafood cooking class to name but a few, they can help you structure a program that will ensure your rewards are remembered, talked about and shared for years to come.


Di Mace is a freelance story-making brand writer, strategist and purpose-digger. She turns boring brand messages into content and stories that matter. Find her at www.wordswords.com.au.