My copy of Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards has been sitting on my desk for several weeks, as I've been piecing together this post. What finally prompted me to complete it was Paul Hebert's (Incentive Intelligence) post and his responses to some of Mr. Kohn's precepts. Here are mine.
As many of you probably know, Kohn's book is essentially an indictment of rewards, or what he calls "carrot and stick psychology" in the workplace, the classroom and the world in general. If you are a rewards professional and haven't yet read it, I recommend that you do. His perspective is one that you should know and appreciate, even if you don't always (as I don't always) agree with it.
As the centerpiece of his argument against workplace rewards, Kohn puts forth The Five Problems with Rewards ... at Work. I'd like to highlight and respond to each of these in turn, based on my own experience in and knowledge of the field.
1. Rewards punish.
Kohn says "In some circles, it is no longer necessary to make the case that punishment destroys motivation: this fact is already understood." I believe you'd be hard pressed to find a reward professional, or any other student of management, who speaks out in favor of punitive management practices of any kind. Not only because they don't work, but also because of their destructive impact. The success of Bob Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule would suggest that most of us finally get this.
Having said that, however, it is disingenuous to pretend that negative consequences have no place in the adult workplace. Failure to perform the job for which one is hired can - and typically does - lead to consequences more serious than withheld rewards. Along with any other things it represents, the employment relationship does have at its heart an economic transaction in which both parties agree on certain expectations that will be met as part of the exchange. And while we don't effectively manage people simply by either providing or witholding rewards (though I've seen it tried), rewards - along with clear communication, regular feedback, coaching and development - are a valid component of the overall management toolkit.
2. Rewards rupture relationships.
Relationships, Kohn tells us, "are casualties of the scramble for rewards." Using individual rewards to pit people against each other in an environment where they need to work together is, frankly, stupid. Of course, such a practice would "discourage the social support and sense of belongingness", as Kohn notes. Reward professionals understand that effective reward practices must strike a balance between recognizing the role of the group and the role of the individual employee. Tipping that balance too much in one direction or the other inevitably causes problems - much like the problems that Kohn alludes to.
3. Rewards ignore reasons.
"The point here is remarkably simple," Kohn says. "In order to solve problems in the workplace, we must know what caused them." Not to be flippant, but ... duh! No reward professional worth their pay would overlay an incentive plan on a workplace issue without first seeking to understand the root causes. I find that nearly half of the incentive plan "feasibility studies" that I conduct end with the conclusion that there are a number (sometimes a big number) of needs that must be addressed (which can range from communication to process improvement to management development) before any incentive plan should be put in place. And I have difficulty believing that I am alone here. As I am fond of repeating, incentive plans support, but are no substitute for, sound management practices.
4. Rewards discourage risk taking.
Kohn relates the following anecdote. "'People will do precisely what they are asked to do if the reward is significant' enthuses one proponent of pay-for-performance programs. And here we have identified exactly what is wrong with such programs." And he's right. Rewards that are too singular in their focus, or so heavily weighted (as part of the overall pay package) as to disproportionately and inappropriately influence behavior, do tend to produce problematic results. As incentive guru Jerry McAdams is fond of saying, "Be careful what you reward, for you will surely get it."
Reward professionals understand that the design and implementation of effective rewards demands careful consideration of and planning for the potential consequences - intended and otherwise.
5. Rewards undermine interest.
Kohn's point here is that "extrinsic motivators not only are less effective than intrinsic motivators, but actually reduce intrinsic motivation." While this is certainly true in many cases (again, with ill-considered and ineptly implemented rewards), I have difficulty believing that it is true across the board, and that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are always mutually exclusive.
Bottom line, I think there is a fundamental difference between the way Kohn views rewards, at their very core, and they way that I do. He sees them as a bribe, a way to get people to do what they wouldn't otherwise be willing to do. I see them as a form of partnership; which is what I believe the employment relationship represents at its best, a way of creating and sharing success. It is a dialogue, as in the example of a group incentive plan where leadership says, "These are the things we must accomplish together, as an organization, to be successful. Help us get there and we'll share the value generated by that accomplishment." In this context, the incentive provides important directional cues - as Paul Hebert notes in his post - as well as an agreement to work together and share the benefits.
Getting this agreement right, which is admittedly a challenge, can be a very powerful, positive thing. I've seen it first hand. To convince me otherwise is asking me to disbelieve my own experience.
In summary, I do want to say that Kohn does us all a service by calling attention to the often misguided and flawed programs which are put in place in an attempt to improve performance. The essence of my issue with his perspective, however, is that he paints all reward efforts with the broad brush of condemnation using arguments and examples that, in fact, represent very poorly conceived and implemented practices. Not only is this incorrect, but it is also insulting to those of us who work diligently to ascertain where rewards will make a positive contribution and where they will not, and who apply the principles of sound reward design to their development and implementation.
So, there it is.
My blog is blessed with a lot of smart readers. I would welcome your thoughts and responses to this, particularly if you're familiar with Kohn's work.