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Action Versus Motion: When Managing Compensation Leads to Tangible Results


PeopleImages / iStock

In the best-selling book “Atomic Habits,” author James Clear writes about the difference between motion and action. “The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same,” he wrote. “When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result. Action, on the other hand, is the type of behavior that will deliver an outcome.”

Clear suggests that we often spend time on motion (planning) because it gives us a feeling of progress without running the risk of failure. In other words, planning can be a form of procrastination. We may know something should be started or changed. But instead of taking action — even a little action — our habit of going through motions kicks in.

Act Sooner and Keep Improving to Achieve More

Better results can be realized if we put ideas into practice sooner, and then refine them over time. The thought is that finding something to act on promptly can be more useful in producing an outcome than developing a broader plan to act on down the road. Usually, it is more effective to keep improving something incrementally rather than trying to start with a solution that has everything considered and covered out of the gate. The delay is not worth it.


Do we as HR and compensation professionals fall into the trap of too much planning and not enough action? Do we spend more time preparing than we should? Would it be better to try out new approaches, see what works, get feedback and keep moving forward with actions? Should we break the habit of over-planning and build the habit of more action?

How does this relate to compensation management in the real world? After all, a lot of planning is required to make sure compensation is done right. We have to make sure the salary and incentive plans are aligned with our organizational strategy and goals. And we have to review budgets, get support from leadership, determine the proper measurements and communicate the plans throughout the company.

Maybe the answer is in thinking about these compensation items in a smaller way. And then it can be easier to act on each piece one at a time or introduce a new program for one segment of your organization. The key here is easy. Making something easy helps to ensure it gets done.

Atomic Compensation?

As with any habit we want to change, we must understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Break it down into small pieces — atoms. (Remember: the title of the book is “Atomic Habits”).

Clear explains, “Habits are like the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins… They are both small and mighty. This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits — a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.” 

What are some ways this applies to developing and managing compensation plans? Consider this example:


An HR team is considering implementing a new rewards program using “spot bonuses” to show recognition and celebrate the exceptional work of associates. The idea is for peers to nominate co-workers for awards. Managers are given a quarterly budget to use for paying the bonuses to their team members. The company has not done this before.  


As phase one, HR decided to start the new program in one department: information technology. After six months, if successful, the stated plan is to roll it out to more departments or even the full company.  

As part of phase one, IT employees will be interviewed or surveyed to learn their thoughts about the program and ways to make it better. Feedback will be used to make enhancements in the communication and overall process for employees.

Reflection and Review

Now let’s return to “Atomic Habits.” Clear calls the early start and refinement process “reflection and review,” writing that “reflection and review enables the long-term improvement of all habits because it makes you aware of your mistakes and helps you consider possible paths for improvement. Without reflection, we can make excuses, create rationalizations and lie to ourselves. We have no process for determining whether we are performing better or worse compared to yesterday.

In our example, instead of trying to address every issue that might arise with the new reward and recognition process, HR decided to stand up the program sooner and see how actual users (employees) feel about it. The compensation and HR team wanted to learn:

  • Does the program meet the goal of nominees feeling more appreciated?
  • Did those doing the nominations feel engaged and motivated by recognizing the excellent work of colleagues?
  • Does the program make a positive difference for employees?  
  • What points need to be clarified in the program?

They started small with one part of the company. In doing this, employees were told this was a trial to be completed before bringing the program to the next level. Suggested improvements — tangible items based on action — would be prioritized and added to the road map.

Feedback would be used to evaluate the program and decide if it should be launched more broadly. The business case to fairly evaluate the merits of the recognition program.

By focusing on action, this employer started the program quickly and gained the ability to adapt using real data.  

It is easy to plan (use motion) and delay action. We all do it. The result can be slower results and missed opportunities. Recognizing when to use action instead of motion is the first step. What’s more, making something simpler to accomplish helps drive action. And that is a healthy habit.

About the Author

Ezra Schneier is corporate development officer at HRSoft Inc. 

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