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Authorized to Manage – Reward/Penalty Authority (#4 in the series Authorized to Manage)
By Thomas Cutting

This is the fourth in a series looking at Positional, Referent, Reward/Penalty and Expert types of authority, their use, abuse and challenges.

The beatings will continue until morale increases.

Reward/Penalty Authority

Reward/Penalty authority is the use of both positive reinforcement and punishment to motivate people. Balance is the key. Too much reward and it becomes an expected entitlement and too much punishment causes people to leave. But both the carrot and the stick are required. Without rewards people don’t feel appreciated. On the other hand, a lack of consequences for poor performance or bad behavior will impact more that the disruptive team member. If you don’t address the issues your good performers will wonder why they bother working so hard.

For the longest time I didn’t feel I had much of this type of authority. What types of rewards could I dish out? How could I punish someone? As I better understood the role, I found some weapons you can add to your arsenal:

  • Better (or worse) assignments
  • More (or less) responsibility
  • Good (or bad) comments in annual reviews
  • Recommendations (or lack there of) for rewards, pay increases and promotions

When you think of reward/penalty authority in this light is evident that project managers have something to work with.

Appropriate Uses

Reward/Penalty authority is a tool works best when not overused. Right now I have two annual reviews in the pipeline that need my attention. Reviews are an opportunity to flex this authority but they can’t be the only time you use it. Keeping your people updated throughout the year on how they are doing stops them from being blindsided on their reviews. A “good job” email serves to reinforce their effort. A discussion about poor performance (calm, but direct with specific examples) is as a form of penalty to get them back on track.

Many companies offer standard awards. Look for opportunities to get your team on the list for these acknowledgements.

Remember to reward in public but punish in private.

Abusive Uses

Yelling is not my favorite use of penalty authority. I have seen project managers reduced to tears by directors that thrive on bellowing. If it is a tool you use regularly, stop. The objective is not to degrade the team member.

Another misuse is over applying the reward side. Continuously handing out bonuses, plaques and promotions can result in feelings of entitlement. People may begin expecting recognition and, like a drug, will need bigger doses more often to feel satisfied.


Challenges for this authority type can be subtle but deadly. They don’t come from external sources as much as from a misstep on your part. At the top of the list is sincerity. If you do not come across as sincere when rewarding or even punishing team members you are wasting the effort.

Maintaining equality is another tough challenge. Presenting the corner office to one top producer and offering a handshake to the next will result in rioting. I don’t suggest sharing it with the team, but keep track of what you give and why. It will give you ideas for the future and refresh your memory if questioned.

Finally, be careful not to overstep your bounds. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver as a reward and don’t demote someone without Human Resource’s involvement.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge ( and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (

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