As we began our education in grade school, we were motivated to study with grades. And grades, we soon realized, yielded the reward of approval from parents, teachers, and peers. We would study non-stop for days to take an exam, with the assurance that we will receive a grade within a week. Later, as we entered the job market, our daily work was rewarded with a monthly salary. In many cases, an immediate commission was rewarded for each sale – or aggregated into a bonus at the end of the year.
All that we do appears to be governed by reward systems, and the most powerful reward systems are short-term. Short-term rewards are meant to sustain, to preserve the status quo. Yet, during the pursuit of extraordinary achievements, the traditional short-term rewards do not suffice.
To make bold ideas happen, a short-term reward must be transcended and a long-term reward must be realized. This is called vision. Great companies are started by people who give up their day jobs and make a tremendous sacrifice. Great organizations and societies are built over time through the long-lasting vision and fortitude of a committed membership. When near-term benefits do not exist, vision should be the bridge that helps us achieve our goals. But vision doesn’t cut it.
Great leaders and true visionaries have found a way to manipulate reward systems to meet their own ends and those of their employees. Their strategy? Impose a sophisticated short-term reward structure overhaul – one that incentivizes us to make decisions that are oriented toward the long-term but appease us in the short-term as well.
In reality, we need to trick ourselves. Long-term rewards are most effective when they are broken up and positioned as short-term rewards. Sometimes this means setting celebratory milestones – even if they are not financial achievements – over the course of a long-term project. For others, it means finding mentors or other leaders that can hold you accountable to goals as you set them. Many leaders that have achieved long-term goals reveal that they had partners that would pace them along the way.
***This article is adapted from the research and writing of Scott Belsky and the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develops knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.