Rewards vs. Culture

When I was in college, I spent two years as editor in chief of our daily online-only newspaper, The Daily Gazette. One of my first projects was leading a redesign of our website — and that included adding advertising; overnight, we were pulling in a thousand dollars a month.

I didn’t really know what to do with the money (the college paid our costs), so I came up with a scheme to divvy up the money as a salary of sorts to our team. Each semester, we’d pay writers, photographers, and editors a few hundred dollars — but they had to be active participants, meeting a quota of contributions. I imagined this could lead to a golden age for quality content.

Instead, the program failed miserably. Story contributions and staff attendance dropped rapidly over the course of the semester.

Next semester, we changed course. We stopped paying the team (apart from a couple, more significant, work-study scholarships) and instead used the money to buy t-shirts, send people to conferences, hire a journalism coach, and throw parties. This became a turning point for the Gazette: Our staff grew, the team wrote a lot of great stories, and we were named one of the top three college news sites in the country.

Looking back, I now realize that this challenge is a great lesson in the difference between rewards and culture.

What I realized after that first semester is that when we started paying our staff, working for the Gazette became a job — not a passion hobby. Our staff had tons of other opportunities, and a couple hundred bucks wasn’t worth hours of their life. When we pivoted how we used the money, though, we built tight relationships within the team, we created a sense of camaraderie, and we made the Gazette a social touch point at the school.

People want to get paid appropriately, of course, but as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy they want more than just a paycheck. I’m always thinking back to my time at the Gazette, and wondering how I can focus on building a culture so that work isn’t just an obligation.

So what should you do? Events like OpenTable’s recent internal hackathon are great. Share books with colleagues, so that you establish common frameworks and mental models. Print t-shirts, host board game nights, sponsor wine tastings. And don’t give undervalued rewards.