1. Make it easy to understand.

To be effective, an incentive-compensation program must be easy to understand.

We worked with a brilliant manager — one of the smartest people we’ve ever known. He designed an incentive-compensation system for his company’s sales force that paid them for doing exactly what he wanted them to do. It was a very precise system. Unfortunately, the sales force couldn’t figure out how to maximize their income. The overly complex system just frustrated the employees. Ultimately, he scrapped it in favor of one that was less precise, but much easier to understand.

2. Employees should control the outcome.

Ensure that the quality of the employee’s work will have a significant effect on the amount of incentive earned. The receptionist may not believe that his or her work will have an impact on the amount of profit the company makes. If that is the case, paying him or her a bonus based on company profit will not incent performance. It’s OK to have a small portion of an employee’s bonus based on something they don’t directly control, but the preponderance of their incentive should be based on his or her performance.

3. Align the system with company objectives.

People will do what you pay them to do, so be careful to ensure that you incent the behavior you want. If you pay people for the number of widgets they produce, you are likely to get a lot of widgets. However, if volume is all you pay for, the quality may not be what you need.

Incentive systems must align closely with company objectives. We think it puts employees in an impossible position when doing something that will benefit the company reduces their compensation.

4. Bonuses have to be a good amount.

Studies show that for incentive pay systems to have a meaningful impact on performance, they have to represent at least 10 percent of an employee’s compensation. Less is generally too little to matter.

5. Incentives must be paid out frequently.

Generally, systems that reward employees frequently, say with every paycheck, are more effective motivators than those that pay out only annually. However, for more senior executives or people engaged in longer term work, such as a big construction project, it may not be feasible to incent more frequently.