Here’s the main thing: Whatever rewards you depends upon whatever it is that drives you to do the things you do.
Psychology is full of materials on the topic of drives, and a single page will be inadequate to address all of it. For the interested person most of the research and writing can be found under the heading of “Theories of Motivation”. A basic theory, drive reduction, states that certain deficits produce drives inside you that you then do things to reduce. This theory works well on the basics, called primary drives, specifically hunger, thirst and sex. You haven’t eaten (deficit) and so you experience a hunger drive that you then reduce by eating. If you’re not too young to know or too old to remember, you can figure out the other two.
If everything in life depended on hunger, thirst and sex, then our understanding of drives and rewards would be easy. Of course you realize sooner or later that your life is more complex than that and so are your drives. To address this reality, psychologists developed many wonderful theories of motivation/drive. One popular in the business world is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Triangle. This theory states that we are all motivated by five hierarchical factors: Physiological Needs (hunger, thirst, sex); Safety Needs (security, protection); Social Needs (belonging, love); Esteem Needs (self-esteem, recognition, status); and Self-Actualization Needs (aspirations, growth). Your challenge is to determine which needs are driving you strongly and what actions will supply the rewards that satisfy those most important needs. Maslow pointed out that you won’t successfully satisfy a higher need (Esteem) in the hierarchy if a lower level need (Safety) is not adequately satisfied.
But there’s another complication in these drive-related theories. People don’t always act to reduce drives. Often we do things that drive us to do more of the same. For example, we all too frequently eat because delicious food is in front of us, not because we are hungry. Think about potato chips and M&Ms. You can’t eat just one! Thus some of our drives, actions and rewards operate on “induced states”. That is, getting a little bit of something like recognition may induce you to seek out and do things to get more recognition. So you need to accept the reality that there are some things you can’t get enough of, and that state may mean that your reward hierarchy lists some items you are always going to be driven to acquire/achieve.
What are the implications for employers who wish to solve the “Scarce Talent” problem by effectively developing and keeping good players? First, employers need to accept the fact that drives, motivations and rewards aren’t effective using a “one size fits all” approach. Effective behavioral rewards are the ones that individuals really want. Second, therefore, employers need to know what individual key players are motivated by and then custom-fit the rewards to the players’ unique dispositions. That means that a person disposed towards achieving security won’t be very motivated by an incentive plan. But people seeking esteem, status and recognition will enthusiastically engage in incentive-related activities. Third, employers must be clever enough to identify those behaviors for which more is better and, business-wise, there can never be enough of such behavior. These probably will be the “higher level” drives, belonging, recognition, self-actualization. Lastly, learn to use timely rewards to sustain these induced drives. High achievers still like money and prizes.