Learn to consider different rewards depending on the individual team members' preferences.

Your team just shipped its Big Project, and it was on-time, on-budget, and it had all the features the product owner requested. Congratulations! It’s time to reward the team for all their hard work and persistence, particularly that one week when they stayed late to make sure they’d hit the deadline. (You, of course, stayed late with them, because a manager should never ask their team to do something the manager themselves isn’t willing to do—right?)

But before you schedule that all-company or all-department meeting to stand the team up in front of everybody and give them all the standing ovation they deserve, pause a moment and ask yourself: Is this really what each individual member on the team wants? Some folks might enjoy that, for sure, but what about the quiet introvert? Or the single parent who often can’t make after-work activities because they need to be there for their kids’ soccer practice? And so on.

One of our key responsibilities as managers is not just to know our employees well enough to be able to coach them when their performance isn’t adequate, it’s also to know our employees well enough to be able to reward them well. An undesired reward is no reward at all. There are numerous kinds of rewards that we can use to give that shot of “feel-good” dopamine to the individual, and while some of them are rewards that the company can (and should) provide, many rewards are ones that you can dole out within your team without HR ever being involved.

Story time! A team I was on once had just celebrated its Big Release, and our boss was looking to celebrate. His boss suggested buying a $100 gift card for everybody on the team, but considering the hours of overtime we’d put in on the project, it was pretty clear that was going to be received pretty poorly, since it would work out to be less than 50 cents per hour of the overtime we’d each put in. Instead, our boss took the money he would’ve spent on those gift cards, and instead took the entire team out to lunch at a nearby bar—and insisted that we were not to return to the office. He bought lunch, drinks, the use of the pool table the entire afternoon, and a grand time was had by all. (And in the end, it actually cost him much less than the gift cards.)

Not everyone views rewards the same way. In particular, managers and developers have definite different viewpoints—don’t let your thinking be guided by what you would want as a reward. Different people are wired differently, so embrace that, and look for ways to reward your team members in the ways they want to be rewarded.

NOTE: A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that there are two forms of transactional currency in the modern world: monetary currency, the one we use to buy groceries and pay rent, and social currency, the more unspoken and implicit one we use when we ask for favors and offers. Mixing the two is an incredibly bad idea: if your friend spends all day helping you move out of your apartment, and you “repay” them with a gift card—even if it’s at a halfway-decent hourly rate—it tends to come off insulting. While employment is compensated in monetary currency (if it weren’t, it would be called “volunteering” or “charity”), do not underestimate the power of social currency, either. For example, if you know one of your employees hates putting together formal notes after a meeting, offering to do that task yourself can often win their respect and loyalty far faster than a steady stream of Amazon gift cards can.

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