Punished by rewards

Are incentives holding your sales teams’ performance back? SUE BARRETT

Sue Barrett

By Sue Barrett

Punishment and reward proceed from basically the same psychological model, one that conceives of motivation as nothing more than the manipulation of behavior.

As part of my own development and in an attempt to keep my mind as open and fresh as possible, I take to reading all sorts of things. On my current reading list is a very interesting book called “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, author, speaker and educator. He writes about the trouble with “gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise and other bribes”.

In light of current discussions and debates about the issues surrounding CEO performance bonuses and incentives, and incentives paid to sales people and other employees, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the possible impact of incentive and rewards systems on the quality of our decision making, the effect on workplace performance and sustainable business practices. I warn you this may not sit well with some of you.

The following is excerpt is taken from the Gurteen Knowledge Website, which reviews the book I speak of.

Our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you’ll get that.

We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way that we train the family pet.

In this book, Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals.

Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people’s behaviour are similarly ineffective over the long run.

Promising goodies to children for good behaviour can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.

Step by step, Kohn marshals research and logic to prove that pay-for-performance plans cannot work; the more an organisation relies on incentives, the worse things get. Parents and teachers who care about helping students to learn, meanwhile, should be doing everything possible to help them forget that grades exist. Even praise can become a verbal bribe that gets kids hooked on our approval.

Rewards and punishments are just two sides of the same coin – and the coin doesn’t buy very much. What is needed, Kohn explains, is an alternative to both ways of controlling people.

The final chapters offer a practical set of strategies for parents, teachers, and managers that move beyond the use of carrots or sticks. Seasoned with humour and familiar examples, “Punished by Rewards” presents an argument that is unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss. See here for an interview with Alfie Kohn.

When I read this book I cannot help but look at the current financial markets debacle and the consequences excessive greed and unethical rewards systems.

The impact being that it is left up to the rest of us to mop up the mess. Further food for thought…


Sue Barrett is founder and managing director of BARRETT, a boutique consultancy firm. Sue is an experienced consultant, public speaker, coach and facilitator. Sue and her team are best known for their work in creating high performing people and teams. Key to their success is working with the whole person and integrating emotional intelligence, skill, knowledge, behaviour, process and strategy via effective training and coaching programs. Click here to find out more

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