Reader: The director of our small office has always been cheap. He never pitches in for office birthday parties or pays for his share when we have food delivered. We've stopped including him in meal orders so we don't have to pick up his tab.

Several times he has promised us a reward (an office outing, a catered meal) for meeting certain performance targets, to be paid for out of his own funds because our umbrella organization doesn't provide funds for this kind of thing. However, even when we meet or exceed the goal, the reward never materializes. He recently had his assistant cancel a scheduled catered meal at the last minute, with no explanation or attempt to reschedule.

The rewards are "extras," not written into our contracts, so it doesn't seem like an HR complaint. Also, it's not so much about the rewards but the broken promises. I feel demoralized and cynical when performance target rewards are announced, though I still give my best effort. I'm wondering if there is anything we can do about this.

Karla: The best antidote to cynicism is gratitude. For example, you can be grateful that this guy is not your dad. Imagine a childhood of ponies promised, never delivered.

You could also be grateful that he uses carrots, not sticks, to motivate — even though reaching for them makes you feel like a [donkey].

For whatever reason, your boss is incapable of putting his money where his mouth is. He may have good intentions that run afoul of his shaky financial reality. He may derive some pathological delight from disappointing people. He may even wonder why it’s up to him to personally reward his employees, when their work is benefiting the entire company. But nothing excuses offering grandiose gratuities you have no intention or means of granting — or, for that matter, mooching off people who make less than you do.


(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As for what you can do, you’ve already started doing it: Accept that he’s full of [beans], and adjust your reactions accordingly. It’s not cynicism, it’s realism.

In the short term, adopt a new private mantra — “I’ll believe it when I taste it” — and repeat it to yourself the minute he starts spinning promises, as inoculation against disappointment. Longer term, decide whether staying the course is worth it even without catered lunches. Is your job rewarding in other ways? Does your effort result in raises and bonuses, or is your boss’s stinginess a systemic issue?

You may be tempted to throw some salt at his carrots: “Gosh, that sounds great, but I’m still full from that last lunch you hosted for us.” But what if you were to counter his promises with a request that won’t cost him anything out of pocket? “Actually, you know what I could really use? An afternoon off. If we meet quota, could we celebrate by closing the office a few hours early?”

PRO TIP:
Whatever form a reward takes, studies have shown that feeling valued and appreciated is a crucial component in employee satisfaction. Heartfelt words beat empty promises every time.