When Workplace Rewards Backfire
[Continued from Part 1, "Reward vs. Punishment as Workplace Tools: You Think You Know How to Use Them?"]
You may be one of those who believe that rewards always work better than punishment.
Before strongly siding with the rewards school of thought, consider the following powerful objections to or at least limitations on rewards-based performance schemes, while not leaping to the conclusion that therefore punishment schemes are any better.
[Note: Although I have referenced, as a source, ”Six Reasons Rewards Don’t Work” by Dr. Richard Curwin, Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College; categories, most of the following interpretations and illustrations are my responsibility.]
1. Satiation effect: This, as I see it and on one interpretations, relates to the Big Mac, “diminishing marginal utility” (DMU) effect alluded to above—as more units of reward are obtained, the impact of each diminishes, nullifying the reinforcing effects of the reward—indeed, possibly culminating in punishing stomach upset.
In other words, as “rewards” of a specific type accumulate, they may cause satiation and become less effective and less rewarding–even if only temporarily, as is the case with rewarding oneself with a fifth Big mac, for going back to the counter for a fifth time.
On a second interpretation, consistent rewarding may eventually require bigger rewards to elicit the same positive response.
As suggested, at the physiological level, satiation, e.g., after six candy bars, produces the DMU effect; alternatively, desensitization of mental or physiological receptors, akin to insulin resistance, can kick in when the reward is oversupplied, resulting in a weakened response to previously effective levels or forms of reward and therefore a need for increased levels of reward to elicit the same response.
Interestingly, desensitization as a form of satiation, is logically deducible from percentage-based rewards: Obviously, if every successful salary review carries a 10% pay hike, the actual dollar-denominated reward must get larger every year if employee job performance-levels are to be maintained, if not improved.
Lesson: Steer clear of the satiation and desensitization zones and DMU-induced expectations of bigger bonuses when doling out rewards. Consider fixed-dollar rather than fixed-percentage increases in pay to avoid DMU “inflationary demand” expectations of increasing dollar amounts—unless the rewarded employee notices that, as a percentage of total income, the pay hike as reward is shrinking each year.
2. Addiction: Any powerful reward—especially those with physiological impacts, such as sweet treats or “open bar” staff parties—can become addictive and destructive to performance, either as a distraction or through displacement or deterioration of the behavior and its goals, e.g., learning or job performance objectives.
As a minimum, addictive rewards can easily compete with and supplant intrinsic rewards—for example the emotional and aesthetic rewards of learning the piano when subverted by bribes [discussed below] or by “popularity” at school. Although there will probably be no pianos or piano lessons in your office, exercise caution in rewarding employees with a free bar crawl.
Lesson: Beware of addictive reward schemes, unless the desired behavior itself, as “self-rewarding”, is addictive.
3. Finishing: Behaviors that come in units that can be rewarded for completion, e.g., factory piecework or a compulsory first aid course, are highly vulnerable to a psychological mutation of intended reward-for-excellence into perceived reward-for-finishing, i.e., incentives for getting the damned thing over with and out of the way.
Piece work and hourly wages are vulnerable to this corruption, if there are no clearly communicated and accepted demands on the quality of performance expected.
Dr. Curwin wisely notes how discrepant a teacher’s and student’s perception of learning can be, when the student interprets a completed course as merely finished, and not as mastered, retained or otherwise valued. Ditto for the workplace.
Lesson: Try to structure rewards that reward mastery and other accomplishment, not just completion for its own sake, without regard to retention, mastery and intrinsic satisfaction.
4. Cynical Manipulation: Rewards work better when they are not perceived cynically by those getting them. If perceived as manipulative, rewards may backfire and trigger resentment and resistance. Successful or not, manipulative reward-schemes may be copied by those they are used on and thereby perpetuate and diffuse manipulation as a general phenomenon, if not as a counter-tactic to be used on one’s manipulators.
Chances are that rewards will be seen as manipulative when small compared with the effort required to earn them or when the “rewards” are sneered at for their intrinsically low appeal, e.g., validated parking as a “bonus” for a 20-hour holiday work shift, if not initially for any suspect motivation of those offering them.
Lesson: Remember that when you are rewarding people for doing something right, you may also unwittingly be training them in reward-scheme techniques. Unless you want them to resent and resist set tasks, or become master cynical manipulators too, you’d better not make your own manipulative approach too obvious.
5. Reward pressure: Once a reward is earned, its impact can become negative if it is seen as stressful pressure to surpass or maintain the previous exceptional performance, if it is disproportionately too large to seem to have been earned, or otherwise seems undeserved. This can lead to any number of weird fall-out behaviors, such as neurotic reassurance-seeking or passive-aggressive slackening of effort to “test” the validity of effort-reward correlation schemes.
Lesson: Craft rewards to avoid making them appear to be pressure.
6. Bribes: Dr. Curwin describes bribes as implicit threats, because, he says, “Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control”. When those rewards are “extrinsic”—not a natural consequence or incentive for behavior, the threat of their being withheld can be a very effective behavioral shaping and control tool applied in advance of the desired behavior, rather than after it.
[Interestingly, it seems that man is the only animal that can be bribed—i.e., rewarded in advance of behavior, even though virtually all animals can be enticed or lured with bait.]
This threat-effect can occur when bribes are withheld after a “taste” has been offered and experienced. Withholding then becomes punishment, in the form of rewards denied, much as removal or termination of punishment, i.e., “negative reinforcement”, positively increases the likelihood of repeat behavioral response.
Lesson: It should be noted that there is an obviously unconstructive meta-message that bribes as rewards-in-advance communicate: Whatever is being rewarded lacks sufficient intrinsic value to be worth doing or is otherwise linked more to rewards that do not automatically arise in the behavioral performance than to those inextricably inherent in it, e.g., the pleasures of exquisite carpentry that inhere in the process of performing it.
At Cross Porpoises
Such complexities and perils of extrinsic-reward schemes are well-illustrated in the training of porpoises: Tossing a porpoise a fish for completing a jump is very likely to muddy the waters of satisfaction and obscure, if not eclipse, a porpoise’s inherent joys of leaping and frolicking for the sheer intrinsic exhilaration of it, and thereby “defeat the porpoise” of the exercise…
…unless, as is probably true, porpoises are smarter than most of us are and have figured out how to get rewarded to have fun, in effect having their fun and eating it too.