Writing in the September 2012 issue of Performance Improvement, a publication of the International Society for Performance Improvement, Piers Steel, PhD and Rhiannon MacDonnell, PhD make a compelling case that well meaning motivational rewards programs can actually damage performance. Their argument, although aimed at organizational systems, is useful information for trainers, teachers, and speakers to consider.
Steel and MacDonnell argue that the traditional rewards approach of incenting desirable behaviors can and does backfire. They list five ways this happens.
1. Being paid for what we love makes us love it less.
Steel and MacDonnell suggest that when you reward intrinsic behavior, you turn it into a behavior of self-interest due to the human brain’s different processing centers for intrinsic and self-interest behavior. Steel and MacDonnell recommend not incenting intrinsic rewarding activities.
For learning professionals this suggests that it would be counterproductive for facilitators to reward behavior that a participant is already excited about. In these situations, let them self-reward.
2. Perceptions of unfairness and a lack of autonomy can sabotage reward systems.
Organizations offering rewards should keep employees fully informed about exactly what the rewards are and how they will be administered. Additionally, pushing people to engage in rewards-focused behavior riles up the autonomy impulse in many people. Steel and MacDonnell recommend making rewards systems fair and focused on encouragement rather than control.
For learning professionals this suggests making the reasons you give out rewards as transparent as possible and not demanding specific behaviors because you a reward will follow.
3. Focusing on the outcome of a task undermines performance of that task.
Steel and MacDonnell argue that when a task outcome is tied to financial gain, the task can be perceived as undesirable. They recommend making the task seem as desirable as possible while avoiding paying people to engage in the task.
For learning professionals this suggests making each task seem desirable and an accomplishment within itself.
4. Steel and MacDonnell suggest that rewards focus people on the outcome rather than the actions being taken.
They further warn that a rewards focus turns attention away from the task at hand. They recommend focusing attention on what needs to be done rather than what the end result will be.
For learning professionals this suggests positioning each learning task as something to be accomplished while avoiding detailed discussions of the results to be gained at the end of the learning program. Hints and possibilities may be enough.
5. It can be difficult to figure out in advance what people will find rewarding before receiving the reward.
Steel and MacDonnell refer to this as “affective forecasting.” They caution that any rewards system, even one that is highly effective, can diminish in its ability to fulfill desire and recommend keeping the rewards system dynamic.
For learning professionals this suggests a need for facilitator flexibility as participants grope their way through the content and discover new avenues of information and related rewards that interest them.
Steel and MacDonnell conclude that people must ultimately take responsibility for rewarding themselves and that any structured attempt to motivate people to engage in a task risks making that task less achievable.
For learning professionals the article, viewed in its entirety, suggests that too tight a focus on rewards systems can be detrimental to the learning that should occur, and that an approach more loose in nature will actually produce more rewardable behavior.
It also suggests that we trainers, teachers, and speakers cannot make people learn. We can, however, inspire them to learn if we do so with enthusiasm and a deft touch.