The Managers Survival Guide to Bonus Week

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Wall Street banks are filled with anxious employees this week. I know this because I have spoken to a number of them and I used to be one of them. I remember those days clearly. However much we tried to convince ourselves that our bonus was not a reflection of our value or worth, we couldn’t help but get sucked in. At this time of the year, there is a lot of stress all over the place and it is infectious!

Tensions are running high and people are desperately trying to regulate their emotions.

Over the last couple of months, our career and personal development coaching webpages have had above average hits and I have had quite a few calls from friends and prospective clients as they plan their exit strategy. Some of them are referrals looking to escape the rat race completely. Others are friends who I have had the same conversations with, at the same time every year, for the last 10+ years.

Reasons for wanting to quit their jobs range from those of the fully-committed career changers saying “I have been holding on for this week, after which I will make the jump”, to the half-hearted and hopeful callers saying “I’m still hanging on with the hope that I will finally get some recognition and appreciation”.

Interestingly, when we dig deeper with our coachees, we often find that contrary to popular belief, a lot of these highly talented professionals are really not motivated by money or status. They just happen to find themselves in environments that reward performance with dollar/pound/euro signs (take your pick).

Over time, they have bought into the notion that their value to an organisation is determined by their compensation packages.

Their motivators have been reset when what is really needed is for employers to reset their approach. Companies would benefit from working out how best to tailor their reward (not just benefits) packages to individuals based on their intrinsic (as well as extrinsic) motivators. Now, that’s another blog.

Back to bonus week. If you are a manager, I hope you have done a good job of managing expectations to date. Neuroscience supports Tom Peter’s quote:

Formula for success: under promise and over deliver.

Here’s why:

The human brain loves certainty and is sensitive to errors.

When you under promise and over deliver (in this case, your employee gets a bigger bonus than they had anticipated), their brain responds by signalling an increase in dopamine, “the happy hormone”, and with it comes a whole chain of positive stimulating events that make him/her feel good.

On the other hand, when expectations are not met, there is a decrease in dopamine production and their ‘flight, fight or freeze’ response is triggered.

Regardless of how well you managed expectations, you should still anticipate and be prepared for some difficult conversations this week. So, let’s get you prepared.

Six Tips to Help You Survive the Difficult Compensation Meetings

  1. Be prepared: find the right time and the right space. Better still, give your employee the control and let them choose where they would like to have the meeting. If you sit in a fish tank of an office surrounded by people in an open plan office, recommend an alternative space. I can guarantee that most people that can see into your office whilst you’re having those conversations with their colleagues are lip-reading, channeling their eavesdropping energies or studying your body language. It is nosy time! Also, spare your employee the walk across the floor accompanied by awkward glances as colleagues try to gauge how the meeting went.
  2. Manage expectations upfront: start off with the agenda for the meeting. Do not assume they know how the conversation is supposed to go and even if they do, it doesn’t hurt to check in with them before kicking off. Make it clear from the outset that it is not a performance review meeting and do not get pulled into discussing performance. The worst time to discuss performance with an employee is when they are already feeling anxious or triggered.
  3. Be fair and transparent: People care about fairness, and perception is very important here. Be clear on the process and ensure that your employee does not feel like they have been unfairly treated. This makes all the difference to how upset they are likely to be if their expectations have not been met. Research by Matthew Lieberman, a Professor at UCLA showed that the human brain responds to being treated fairly the same way it responds to winning money and eating chocolate. Equally, Lieberman and his colleagues found that when people are given insulting offers, the insula, a region of the brain associated with disgust, is activated.
  4. Normalise emotions: be prepared for the emotions that come with these discussions, particularly if you know your employee is likely to be disappointed. Empathise as much as you can and rather than assume you know what they need from you, ask them. Most people can recognise genuine empathy when they are faced with it.
  5. Be patient: do not get tempted to get these difficult discussions out of the way. This is not the time to rush through a meeting. Be attentive and give your employee the time they need. This is a time to remember the importance of bringing humanity back to the workplace.
  6. Take care of yourself: Ask for help. Do not underestimate how much support you can get from mentors, HR business partners and colleagues, if you ask for it. If you find yourself particularly anxious about a planned meeting, reach out to others for support. The manager’s role is not an easy one and this is one of those times when it is important to ask for what you need.

Now, over to you…..

If you are an experienced people manager, what additional tips do you have for managing difficult compensation discussions? On the other hand, if you would like to discuss specific challenges you have as a manager or would like some guidance on regulating your emotions, get in touch for an informal chat about how we can help you.