This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
When motivation is focused around rewards and punishments, it is being done to people not with them. There are several problems with this approach.
First of all, as we touched on in the previous chapter, rewards need to be used carefully in order to motivate appropriately. The classical image of using rewards and punishments, as taught in many programs, is that you should always reward behavior you like and punish behavior you don’t like. As we’ve already observed, different people have different ideas of what constitutes a reward and what constitutes a punishment. Even if we all agree that being fired is punishment, firing people does not motivate them, it only gets rid of them.
A more serious problem, as we’ve discussed, is that when people are taught to work for a reward, they do exactly that. When the reward stops, so do they. Even worse, though, is that rewards cannot remain static: the same reward will not provide the same level of motivation.
Consider a serious athlete. They compete in a tournament and, after a few years of trying, they win. They might do it again, but if they are good enough, it’s not long before that tournament becomes too easy. It’s just not worth the effort for one more identical trophy. They look for something harder, something more challenging, with greater prestige or rewards. If they are good enough, they might make it to the world stage, at which point there are no more higher level competitions to win. However, there is always the possibility of winning multiple Olympic gold medals, as swimmer Michael Phelps did, or winning multiple years in a row, as fencer Mariel Zagunis attempted in 2012. Phelps retired after the 2012 Olympics when he successfully became the most decorated Olympian of all time. Zagunis narrowly missed becoming the first woman to ever win three Olympic gold medals in fencing in a row.
Left to our own devices, we seek greater challenge. We also expect the benefits of overcoming those challenges to be ever greater. Conversely, doing the same thing becomes boring. The less interesting or inherently attractive the task is, the greater the reward required to keep us focused on it.
Another problem with the reward and punishment approach is that it works best in a metaphorically quiet environment. The famous behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner once claimed that if he could completely control all inputs a person received, he could completely shape their behavior. In fact, it’s not even clear that it would work as well as he thought even if he did have someone in a box where he had total control. It does sound good though.
The real world is a noisy place. People are receiving a constant stream of inputs and are reacting to a variety of different stimuli. Many of your messages are going to get lost or misinterpreted in the shuffle. A small, inadvertent reward can negate a great deal of punishment: a smile, a laugh, a nod taken to mean approval can be enough.
People also resist crude behavioral manipulation. The smarter and more capable a person is, the less willing they are to feel that their behavior is being manipulated: manipulation infringes on their feelings of autonomy and competence. For them, the reward becomes not responding. There’s a big difference between having a coach push you and feeling that you are being forced into a behavior. Force triggers resistance. When deprived of control, we seek to reassert that control in some way.
I attended a jujitsu seminar in which the instructor, a skinny old man, effortlessly threw us around. When we tried the same technique on each other, we ended up sweating and gasping as we tried to force our partners to the ground. The instructor didn’t even work up a sweat. There was no sense of power, no feeling of being grabbed, but we just flew through the air. When we did it, we applied force. The more force you apply, the more the other person fights back. The secret to defeating your opponent is to let them throw themselves to the ground and the instructor was a master of allowing us to do just that.
All that being said, there are situations where rewards are effective. Rewards are extremely motivating when structured as feedback that you are working towards a goal, rather than being the goal itself. Rewards are also effective, perhaps even most effective, when done in ways that build a relationship: as we’ve discussed, remembering to give employees gifts on their birthdays is powerful technique for building motivation and loyalty.
It’s important to notice when your efforts at motivation are forcing you into a position where you have to apply more and more of your reward and coercive power. This is both exhausting on a personal level, and, if unsuccessful, it also reduces the effectiveness of that power. It’s time to try something different.