Punished By Rewards

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I read Alphie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards, and was surprised by how much research there is out there that supports the concepts of Choice Theory and Empowered Leadership. I wasn’t surprised the research supported Choice Theory and Empowered Leadership, but I was surprised by how much research there actually is.

Kohn reviews the research and presents a very compelling case for why rewards really don’t work. Any time we attempt to bribe someone to do something, we actually undermine their own natural, internal desire to do it and worse.

Yes, it’s true that if we find the right reward, we can get many people to work for the reward, but for how long? And what happens when the reward no longer exists?

People offered rewards to do certain things will work for the reward but they won’t go beyond what is required to earn the prize. They won’t invest in the activity you want them to do. They will only do what is necessary to get the payoff. Quality is not a consideration. In fact, they will typically do what is required the fastest and easiest way possible. Their goal becomes obtaining the reward and not necessarily doing good work. They will take short cuts and the fast track to get to the reward.

People do not like their autonomy threatened. When we resort to rewarding them for doing things, they feel manipulated and of course, they should because they are being manipulated. We are attempting to get people to do something they don’t want to do by rewarding them. This doesn’t feel good even if the reward is a coveted thing.

Another problem with rewards is that people figure if they have to be rewarded to do it, then it must not be a very desirable thing to do. They learn through association to not like the requested activity. We actually undermine people’s desire to do it on their own by giving them a reward.

When the rewards stop, then people generally return to doing the requested behavior at a lower frequency than was done before the rewards were implemented.

Unfortunately, I know many of you are thinking there are just some people that won’t do anything unless it’s for a reward. You are right and you know what created that condition? Rewarding behaviors for compliance! That’s right. We created the very behavior we are trying to change.

Over the years, the majority of us have been bathed in a stimulus-response world. Our parents either rewarded or punished us to do what they thought best. Then we entered school where the teachers rewarded or punished us with the grades they assigned. After that we entered the workforce and rewards and punishments run rampant there, as well.

When people have constantly been rewarded, they do develop a dependency on the reward system. It appears that no internal motivation exists. With these people, it is important to explain what you are attempting to accomplish by eliminating rewards and to get their buy-in.

Empowered Leadership is the alternative to rewarding. It empowers leaders and workers and strengthens autonomy. It helps to develop internal motivation to produce quality work.

With Empowered Leadership, supervisors are trained to create an environment where workers can get their basic needs met at work. They feel safe


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