Why I Hate Rewards

The research of B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, clearly explains why both rats and humans are motivated to work for food pellets – we need to survive. However, this model does not explain why human beings – or rats – would continue to exert high levels of discretionary effort after they have achieved their goal. Rats don’t continue to run the maze once they have received their reward any more than a sprinter keeps running after crossing the finish line.

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT (McGraw-Hill, 2010) I cite 20 reasons why traditional reward and recognition programs are not only ineffective, they are actually damaging to the overall morale and productivity of an organization. The research supporting these 20 reasons dates back 40 years and is so well-known and compelling that I fail to understand how any human resource professional or consulting organization could, in good conscience, recommend utilizing a rewards based program.

Let me share 2 of the 20 most significant flaws inherent to such programs. First, programs fail because they are programs. Ever known anyone on a diet? For how long is a diet effective? For as long as you’re on it – right? Programs lead to only temporary changes in behaviour – once the program is over the behaviour returns to baseline or below. Just like a wind-up toy that runs out of “juice” you will have to wind your employees back up whenever you want to motivate them to work harder.

Second, motivational programs are geared to motivate those who are already highly motivated. At first blush this appears to be a good thing; however, if the goal is to increase the overall morale and productivity of your workforce, reward programs just doesn’t get the job done. Here’s why. Like a student who scores 95% on a test, top performers just don’t have that much more discretionary effort to give – that’s why they’re top performers! Obviously we don’t want to ignore such employees but giving them a prize isn’t going to do much to increase their productivity or your intention and goal to increase the overall productivity of your workforce.

What impact will such programs have on your poor performers? At best, nothing, your program is just another reminder of how they are failing in your organization. The problem comes when we take a look at our average performers where we find the greatest opportunity to increase productivity. Have you ever worked hard and failed to be recognized or rewarded?  (Worse yet, when a team member or supervisor takes credit for our good work.) If so, then you know how such situations leave employees feeling frustrated, disappointed, and demotivated. The next time a “program” comes around your average employees are going to be a lot less likely to “play in your game” because they get that only top performers win and they just don’t make the cut. Why should they bother?

So, the resources you are spending on reward programs to motivate your employees, well, they just don’t work. The bigger problem, however, is that trying to figure out how to motivate employees is the wrong question. The real issue and question is how do we engage employees in ways that reliably lead to high levels of discretionary effort across our entire workforce. (Hopefully you are aware that motivation and engagement are two totally different concepts.) Raising the bar on employee engagement requires changing the culture of an organization – and reward programs, well, they just don’t do that. So, if you’re interested in increasing the engagement level of your workforce, don’t even consider spending resources putting reward programs in place – they don’t work to motivate employees and they certainly won’t work to engage them.

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