Reward vs Effort: Team Dynamics

Reward Graph

The Reward Graph shown here is designed to be a simple visual device to help evaluate the level of effort you spend on any given activity. It is universally applicable because the terms are all subjective.

Reward can be money, or fame, or excitement, or relaxation, or pleasure, or experience. Effort can be money, or time, or energy, or negative side effects, or risk. Both can be immediate or future or singular or ongoing. It’s not necessary to even fully define or quantify reward and effort in most cases, as we are all able to get a gut sense of the balance.

The idea is to consider how rewards and effort balance, based on your own criteria, decide which curve matches your expected outcomes most closely, and then act accordingly with the verb for that curve as your guide.


Let’s look at two quick examples around individual circumstances for context, then look at how this can affect teams. First: robbing a bank. The most obvious reward is a sudden influx of cash. For some of us, there also might be the thrill of danger and potential excitement of victory if successful. Efforts include planning, overcoming fear, and the risks of imprisonment or being shot to death. Again, for some of us, there might also be guilt over breaking a moral code or where our souls might go in an afterlife. Looking around, we see that most people put this on the Avoid curve, but not everyone.

Second, and more mundane: career advancement. Rewards are higher pay, promotion, recognition, and job satisfaction. Efforts might include long hours, unpleasant tasks, and the opportunity costs of not spending that time elsewhere.

I created this graph when reflecting on an annual review at Microsoft. I had put in many of those efforts and I’d had two interim checkpoints over the year with feedback promising big rewards. The actual result was average, in part due to how rewards get parceled out between product and non-product teams. I’d been treating the job as a Focus instead of a Constrain, so was disappointed.

The following year, I shifted to Constrain and moved my effort to more hiking and some moonlighting work. My Microsoft rewards didn’t change, my other rewards grew, including more money, less stress, better health, and more happiness. (I didn’t rob a bank.)


Like anything, more people complicates things. Efforts and rewards are harder to define and end up being shared to some extent. Results become more dependent on factors outside of one’s own control, including based on what other people decide to do. To those that look at the world in a data-centric way (like a guy who creates a graph to help himself understand why he is unhappy and how to fix it,) it can be befuddling. People can appear irrational or even foolish, even though they almost certainly have reasons for their actions that make perfect sense to them.

Owner and Employee

Most business owners treat their own business as a Focus activity. After all, it is often their sole source of income. Few people create a business in which they don’t have belief and interest and motivation to succeed.

Most employees treat their jobs as a Constrain activity. A job is usually a necessity where the person trades time for money. Even in a large company with stock options that attempt to tie individual compensation to company success, the rewards to an employee rarely run equal to that of the owner. Losses are also mostly left to the owner, which would loosely categorized as an effort.

In a team that is a business owner and a group of employees, the owner is best served to recognize this difference. His Focus is not going to be matched by employees, who are in Constrain mode. If an employee does seem to be in Focus, he needs to recognize that and do his best to make sure the rewards match the expectations if he wants it to continue.

Failing to recognize this mismatch is a source of owner disappointment and frustration. If you are thinking Focus and you are thinking everyone else is looking at it the same way, when they don’t follow through as you expect, you’re going to be sad. The business itself is at risk if the owner persists in overestimating employee enthusiasm. A strong business model requires it to be able to succeed with Constrain as a default, quickly recognize and remove or fix Avoid mode behaviors, and be prepared to properly reward Focus mode behavior if it occurs.

Peer Groups

A group of peers that gather around a common, shared goal is different because there is less or no hierarchical structure. Typically, individuals come and go as priorities change alignment. Authority is more limited and decision making requires broader consensus. The rules, standards, and structure are decided at a group level and it is thereafter up to the group to enforce, ignore, or change those characteristics.

Peer groups might include a community sports team, a business networking group, a church congregation, an Alcoholic Anonymous scheduled meeting, or an ad hoc group of regulars at the local sports bar that have started recognizing each other over time. Some of these suggest that a Focus approach by members is highly desirable, others you might start to worry if everyone isn’t on Constrain.

A group is most successful when the individual modes of members are in alignment. An entire group of Focus-minded people are going to be an active, results-oriented team. A entire group of Constrain-minded people are going to be less active, less driven, but still satisfied with the results. I have trouble imagining an Avoid-minded group remaining a group, although “people with memberships to gyms they never visit” might qualify?

Group dynamics struggle most when there is a notable mismatch of modes between members of the group, especially if it isn’t actively recognized. In informal social groups, problems are frequently best solved by those in the minority just finding somewhere else to go.


If three members of a bowling team are Focus-minded and one is Constrain-minded, it usually not that hard to swap the one out with another team. The biggest danger is not recognizing it as a different in perceived reward vs effort, a valid and reasonable difference in opinion, and instead treating it like the one is a bad person or a failure. In reverse, one Focus-minded and three Constrain-minded, could work out fine. The Focus person can enjoy leading and greater involvement and as long as his reward definition doesn’t include being, say, the top team in a league, there’s probably no issues.

In a group with more aggressive goals and some level of defined standards, especially if there are notable investments required and commitments expected, the potential for conflict increases when members have mismatched value judgments. Success is both defined by and dependent on the group.

A Focus-minded member, seeking high rewards and prepared to expend more effort to get there, is going to perceive the goals as a minimum and the standards as a requirement to be met. The Constrain-minded member is going to be satisfied with less reward, is going to perceive the goals as more of an upper bound of wild success, and the standards as a guide that is laudable, but something acceptable to seek without necessarily attaining.

Described in this way, a group with a mix of Focus-minded and Constrain-minded members seems almost destined to eventually come to conflict. It’s not that one perception is more or less valid than the other, but it is the mismatch between them that causes it. Rewards are unlikely to be as high as the Focus-minded seek and it will be hard for them to understand the lack of concern the Constrain-minded have for it. The Constrain-minded will have trouble understanding what all the fuss is about, as to them, everything seems fine. Focus will want action and change, Constrain will want stability and less investment.

What to Do About It

I’m not going to try to give a prescription and expect anyone to take it. As I like to remind myself (and sometimes others, a certain daughter comes to mind,) you can’t change others, you can only change yourself.

But say you are in a mismatched group of Focus, Constrain, and maybe the oddball Avoid that mysteriously doesn’t leave.

If you’re the Avoid, you’d do others a favor to just drop out. Everyone else, even the Constrain-minded, probably are spending some time trying to figure out how to get you to engage. You’re not going to, but not leaving sends the wrong message. You’re telling them you’re in when you’re out.

If you’re the Constrain, take a moment to reflect on the broader group. Is the intent of the group one that says Focus should be the style? Is there a majority who are in Focus mode? If so, you should take a moment and try to understand what rewards the others expect. Perhaps you aren’t seeing the potential and you could adjust. Or, perhaps you’ve inadvertently joined a group of people that are more driven than you and it isn’t the right group.

Alternatively, if Constrain is the better default mode for the group, it’s not you and your similarly-minded peers who are the mismatch. It’s an extra effort on your part, but helping the Focus person understand where you stand could help clarify to him a dynamic he might not see and will be a source of frustration for him.

If you’re the Focus, it’s also time for you to reflect. Is the intent of the group one of Focus? Are most of your peers in that mode? If so, you’re not the only one invested and you shouldn’t have a difficult time getting some assistance leading to a resolution. It could be those that are in Constrain mode didn’t understand the group dynamic and expectations in advance. Perhaps they don’t know the potential rewards or expected efforts. Perhaps what they are doing is Focus to them and you don’t understand.

If you are the only or one of few members that are Focus-minded, then it’s more likely you didn’t understand the group you joined. Remember that groups can have outwardly state goals and standards, but a different internal culture. It’s easy, when you’re the one in Focus mode, to see others as lesser, weaker, or failing. That’s just not correct, it really is just different. You can find another group more aligned with your vision. If you can adjust what you see as reward, perhaps you can be a leader and help others grows. (That’s a hard one, and dangerous for you, because they are already satisfied.)

Only Two More Thoughts, I Promise

First, it is critical to not think of someone else’s evaluation of reward vs effort as wrong or bad or even built into his identity. His perception of reward for effort just is. Yes, with more information, it could change. In time, it will change, maybe enough to to move to a different curve. But that is his and he has a right to it no different from you have to yours.

Second, joining a group always means sacrificing your own freedom to some extent. You are voluntarily tying yourself to others. You don’t have to be part of a group and you don’t have to change to fit the group’s demands. If you choose to, it is voluntarily. If the group doesn’t fit you and can’t reasonably be changed to fit you, don’t be part of it. Libertarian Harry Browne said, “By bending yourself to fit the institutions, you turn things inside out. The institutions must be created and utilized as they serve you—not vice versa. When they don’t add anything to your well-being, you have no logical reason to support them.”

If you somehow mysteriously got this far and would like to share your thoughts publicly (or privately,) I would find that exceedingly cool.

2 thoughts on “Reward vs Effort: Team Dynamics”

  1. Very well written – I also think Employees don’t have to view their jobs as Constraint if the owner treats them as part of the company. Then this flows to teams, definitely the bigger the team, the harder it is dealing with all the different personalities. A good way description for each one, similar to the Disc Profile and many others out there where we can all view and see how we can build as individuals being not only sensitive, but understanding to the other teammates and individuals we are all trying to help.

    • I agree that employees don’t have to view their jobs as Constraint, but that a) an owner that assumes they are in Focus instead of Constrain is going to be taken unaware when that is revealed through employee choices, and b) a business that only works if employees are in Focus mode does not have a realistic business plan.

      Encouraging and rewarding employees to where they do see it as a Focus activity will (or should?) produce a better business result, but I think it is not a safe choice to build the business expecting employees to view their jobs that way.


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