Awards and rewards can motivate behavior. An obvious example is online gaming, where players earn stars, points, or access to special features. The reward system is geared toward encouraging people to keep playing the game.

When I complete a New York Times crossword puzzle without hints on the day it publishes, I get a gold star. That’s better than a blue star for completing it late or requesting hints. I also get recognized for consistency. Why do I care about earning a streak of 52 Monday puzzles or finishing a Saturday puzzle without hints? The system is designed to make it feel like an accomplishment.

Reward Systems

Reward systems can also motivate behavior in real-world situations with bigger stakes. That includes the workplace.

I’m not a big fan of gamification in the workplace. I want people to be intrinsically motivated to do good work. Ideally, they will appreciate the joy of accomplishment or being part of a team working toward a common goal. Making work into a game sometimes strikes me as treating adults like young children. There is also the risk that by rewarding people for merely showing up, we discourage them from doing more than that.

That said, relying on intrinsic motivation is not always enough. There can be a place for game-like situations that reward efficiency or innovation. That might be a competition between divisions or departments or a program where individual employees can pose suggestions. Winners get recognition and sometimes monetary rewards.

For example, TEL encourages employees to submit examples of sustainability in the workplace. The most outstanding submissions win TEL Sustainability Awards. Management shares the winning programs so the company can adopt them as best practices.

Programs like the one at TEL are rare. In many companies, sustainability efforts remain siloed. Oxford Economics and SAP surveyed executives from nearly 2000 companies in 2022 and summarized the results in a report. Only half of the respondents said that employees actively participate in their company’s sustainability programs. Even fewer—27 percent—had policies that incentivized employees to contribute ideas that promote sustainability.

Improving Employee Engagement

The best incentives can be monetary. If participating in sustainability efforts is an unpaid addition to an employee’s regular job, it can be hard to get buy-in. When sustainability is part of the job, there is accountability. If it is being measured, then it matters. Employees who are paid to consider sustainability at the design stage of a project will prioritize it.

Employee surveys can be a helpful first step. They are a way to measure employee engagement and make plans to improve it.

ASE updated its biennial employee survey in 2021 and rebranded it as a sustainability engagement survey. The survey reaches employees in 26 ASE factories worldwide. The goal is to use employee feedback to inform decision-making. The company wants employees to feel empowered to improve sustainability performance.

The trick with programs like surveys is to follow up with action. What is the company doing differently as a result of the survey? There is also value in pursuing external recognition.

Sustainability Award Programs

A new year means another opportunity to earn annual awards. The 3D InCites Awards opened nominations last week, on January 19. I am again one of the judges for the Sustainability Award. We recognize companies that set concrete goals and demonstrate progress toward them. The more different aspects of sustainability they address, the better. I appreciate creative approaches that go beyond standard ways to reduce emissions, water and energy consumption, or waste.

3D InCites is far from the only awards program that has expanded to include sustainability. The Flash Memory Summit introduced multiple new award categories in 2022, including the Most Innovative Sustainability Technology award. Quarch won that award for its power analysis modules. The modules evaluate the power usage of storage devices so that designers of those devices can optimize power consumption.

The SEAL Awards program, honoring Sustainability, Environmental Achievement, and Leadership, has been running since 2017. It is industry agnostic but has included companies in the semiconductor industry. Microsoft earned a Sustainable Innovation Award in 2022 for cloud storage circularity. AMD and Lattice Semiconductor were among the winners of the 2022 SEAL Sustainable Product Award.

Winning an award gives a company bragging rights and can boost morale. It also elevates the importance of whatever aspect of the business is being recognized. Sustainability award programs raise awareness about sustainability. When winners share news about the award and why they won it, customers and suppliers hear the message that sustainability is worth promoting. Organizations that want to compete for awards can look to past winners for inspiration.

Award programs also come with risks of greenwashing. Winning companies might oversell their claims of being sustainable, environmentally responsible businesses. Merely winning an award doesn’t mean the company is doing everything right or everything it should. Not all award programs are equally stringent.

Also, the winner might be industry-leading or simply the highest performer among companies that entered the competition. A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that I had won first place in my age group in a 10K running race. It was not my best performance. I struggled on an uphill section in the final mile. But it turned out that I was the only participant in my age group in this small, local race.

Sometimes the same companies are winning sustainability competitions year after year. How can we broaden the field? One way is to raise awareness about the award programs and encourage companies of all sizes throughout the supply chain to apply.

Another way is to limit how often a particular company can win. 3D InCites invites a representative from the prior year’s winning company to join the Sustainability Award judging committee. Companies cannot win two years in a row, so there is no conflict of interest.

Now you know, if you didn’t already, about several sustainability awards programs. I encourage you to look them up and see if your company qualifies to enter. Here’s to healthy competition that rewards progress and innovation.

Julia Freer Goldstein

Julia Freer Goldstein is an author and business owner on a mission to make manufacturing…

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