There's a recent fad that's becoming popular in management circles. Led by Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer, it advocates that rewards are punishing. If true, the idea is intriguing. But before anyone stops paying their employees and in the process expects them to be grateful, let's take a closer look at Kohn's arguments. Following are his major contentions and my attempt to sort fact from fiction.
Financial incentives are the most important form of incentive: Fiction Kohn mainly addresses the use of financial incentives, although there is abundant evidence that the most motivational forms of rewards and recognition tend to be nonfinancial. This finding was initially identified in some of the classic studies of what workers want from their jobs, conducted by Lawrence Lindahl in the late 1940s and repeated with similar results in the early 1980s. In the initial studies, managers identified the primary reasons why their employees worked as "good wages," "job security," and "promotion/growth opportunities." Employees who reported to those managers, however, cited such intangibles as "full appreciation for work done" and "feeling 'in' on things" to be what they most wanted from their jobs. (Footnote 1) This perception gap can be easily filled by most any manager without the use of money, but rather through some time, thoughtfulness and creativity.
In another classic study, Frederick Herzberg classified money as a "hygiene" or "maintenance" factor along with elements of one's working environment such as working conditions, policies and administration, and one's level of pay. These elements are necessary to do one's job and without them workers tend to be dissatisfied. Having them, however, did not tend to make people motivated to do a better job.
What did cause a higher level of excitement and motivation among workers were what he called "motivators" -- aspects of the job itself such as achievement, recognition for accomplishment, challenging work, increased responsibility and so forth.(Footnote 2)
The 1993 National Study of the Changing Workforce had similar findings. When employees were asked the reasons considered to have been "very important" in deciding to take a job with a current employer, the top variable listed by 65 percent of respondents was "open communication," followed by "effect on personal/family life," "nature of work" and "management quality." "Wages" was 16th on the list, just two places ahead of "didn't receive any other job offers."(Footnote 3) Clearly, money isn't a primary means to create or sustain high motivation in workers -- yesterday or today.
After examining and asking employees about 65 potential incentives in the workplace, Dr. Gerald Graham of Wichita State University found the top five motivating incentives were 1) initiated by managers and 2) based on employee performance (Footnote 4):
Dr. Graham concludes: "It appears that the techniques that have the greatest motivational impact are practiced the least even though they are easier and less expensive to use."(Footnote 5)
Please note that all these studies were done with adults in workplace environments, not with school children or college students in contrived experiments -- the type of research Kohn prefers to cite.
Intrinsic motivation produces the best results from employees: Fact I agree with Kohn that the best motivation is intrinsic. Unfortunately, in reality, most jobs are not intrinsically very motivating. To get to that point, a manager must work with employees to mesh individual needs and interests, such as career aspirations and individual learning goals, with the organization's needs for performance and results. This is the job of managers today.
Extrinsic motivators (such as rewards) destroy an individual's intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of work itself Fiction This assertion by Kohn is not true if a manager approaches the job of managing as a partnership with employees, looking to exchange work on organization goals for help in meeting the employees' individual and career goals in a positive work contract. In such a case, mutually agreed upon goals are more likely to be intrinsically motivating for the employee. Likewise, rewards also need to be individualized to the desires of individual employees. Managers need to ask employees what would be rewarding to them if they obtained mutually agreed upon goals. By involving employees in both setting goals and determining desirable rewards, intrinsic motivation can be preserved.
Incentives effectively control behavior and produce short-term compliance Fact Over 100 years of research has substantiated the finding that all behavior is controlled by its consequences. And positive consequences are more effective at motivating behavior and goal accomplishment than negative consequences. This is true from both researchers' and practitioners' perspectives -- and is common sense to boot!
Controlling behavior is bad, it makes people feel manipulated, and only gets people to obey resentfully for the short term: Fiction Control for control's sake is negative, but following through on aspects of a positive work contract that is providing rewards for agreed upon results is just good management. It's all about partnering. If you create a motivating environment and help employees reach their goals, they will be motivated.
Followers of the "rewards are punishing" movement seem to feel that any use of rewards is manipulative, but this is just not the case. If you share your strategy of managing with employees and develop mutually supportive goals, rewards will be rewarding. Rewards are manipulative only if managers don't tell employees what they are doing and instead use rewards to trick employees into doing certain behaviors they wouldn't otherwise want to do. Doing this is poor management, not just a poor use of rewards. Effective management today is what you do with employees, not what you do to them.
Over time, if properly managed, employees will come to take responsibility for their behavior without simply focusing on what's in it for them. This is the learning element that comes with developing individuals so they take responsibility and pride in their abilities, achievements and work.
Competition can impede productivity: Fact You don't want excessive internal competition among individuals you are trying to build into a team. This can happen if your reward program is ill conceived. If the single top sales producer gets the only trip to Hawaii, you'll end up possibly promoting cutthroat competition among your sales representatives. However, if the top producer gets a weekend at a local resort and the entire sales team gets a party to celebrate achieving its sales goals, you're more likely to encourage everyone to work together. It is possible to have multiple-level incentive programs that work simultaneously with both individuals and groups.
Rewards always create competition among workers and ultimately destroy relationships: Fiction This is not true if the team or relationships are geared to achieving joint goals in mutually supportive ways. In such cases, rewards are but one of many ways a manager can encourage and motivate employees to do their best. Praise, recognition and rewards are a means to enhance trusting and mutually supportive relationships -- to let others know you value and appreciate their efforts. These techniques are essential to building closer working relationships between manager and employee or between employees on a team.
Rewards are ineffective -- and even counterproductive -- for getting people to take risks, think creatively or to work together to solve problems: Fiction Kohn feels that people do exactly what it takes to get a reward and no more. All of his concerns are true only if inadequate goal setting is done, not because rewards don't work. If you have fuzzy goals, you'll get fuzzy results. If you reward behaviors you don't want, you'll get undesirable behaviors. If a goal clearly focuses on a desired behavior -- be it risk taking, creativity or problem solving -- rewarding that behavior will produce more of it.
The fact of the matter is, all behavior is controlled by its consequences -- you get what you reward. If it is important to get people to take risks, be creative, or work together to solve problems, you need to clearly focus employee attention on those goals. For example, if it is important to get suggestions from employees on ways to save costs, an effective reward program will focus on cost-saving ideas and in the process will release employees' creative energy to obtain that goal.
Incentive programs can be ineffective, failing to do the job they were intended to do: Fact The shortcomings of incentive programs, however, are often due to poor planning or administration or poor management practices, not to defective motivation theory. For incentive programs to be effective they need to be well integrated with performance management strategies. A manager somehow answers the question, "What's the best way I can reward this specific employee if he or she does what we both agree needs to be done?" To do this requires better individual performance management by managers through: 1) individual performance planning in which goals, expectations and rewards are mutually set; 2) day-to-day coaching to help employees achieve their goals; and 3) performance evaluation and personal feedback. The most effective incentive programs are thus individualized to those who are participating in the program.
Kohn advances a solution to all he feels is wrong with the theory and practice of incentives today. He condenses it to three key words: allow workers choice in making decisions about what they do, let them collaborate together in teams, and have the content of employees' jobs be worth doing. I hate to tell you, Dr. Kohn, but good managers already do these things -- and not as a replacement for effective recognition and rewards!
I believe Kohn's complaints about the use of rewards and incentive programs are more fiction than fact. Shortcomings he cites are due less to motivation theory being simplistic and outdated and more to his lack of acknowledgement of the principles and practice of good management.
Don't scrap your incentive programs yet!
1 Lawrence Lindahl, "What Makes a Good Job?" Personnel, 25, January 1949.
2 Frederick Herzberg, Bernard Mausner and Barbara Snyderman, The Motivation to Work (New York: Wiley, 1959); and Herzberg, Work and the Nature of Man (New York: World Publishing, 1966).
3 National Study of the Changing Workforce, published by the Families and Work Institute, New York, 1993.
4 Gerald H. Graham and Jeanne Unruh, "The Motivational Impact of Nonfinancial Employee Appreciation Practices on Medical Technologists," Health Care Supervisor, 1990, 8(3), 9-17, pp. 9-17.
5 Ibid, page 16.