Puppet on a String: A Summary of My Corruption by Extrinsic Rewards

I recently posted that I was thinking about my own contributions and asking what, if anything, would denote something that could be recognised as my mastery of my discipline. On thinking about this, I realised that, once again, I was asking someone else to value my work. For those of you who are educational specialists, rather than a discipline researcher who is on his way to becoming an educational researcher within the discipline, this is probably somewhat amusing, given I keep talking about the need to reduce extrinsic motivation in my students.

I have changed career several times and, if you look at why I’ve done this, a pattern quickly emerges. I tend to leave at the point where I have become competent enough that other people start to tell me that what I am doing is useful, valuable and start trying to reward me. Yet, I go into jobs seeking that kind of recognition and reward. I am corrupted in my intent, by the rewards, and then my intrinsic reward mechanisms become compromised and, after becoming deeply unhappy, I leave.

I realised, over the weekend, that I was becoming so pre-occupied with external approval that it was making me extremely vulnerable to criticism and it was corrupting me in trying to do something that is, whether I like it or not, very important and that I also happen to be good at.

Right now, I am in the middle of trying to work out how to divorce myself from the external rewards that I, irritatingly, crave and that, ultimately, then reduce the joy I take in doing things for my own reasons. It’s not surprising that the tasks that I enjoy the most at the moment are the big challenges, the ones where I’m working several levels above my pay grade or the usual expectations of someone of my level. I’m doing these things because they’re important and, because I’m doing it ‘out of cycle’ so to speak, I can’t be externally rewarded for them – I can just do a good job.

It’s in this same mode of thinking that I’ve decided not to spend any time applying for any local teaching and excellence awards. (I was about to comment on my potential eligibility but this is just another quest for a pat on the head – so I’ve deleted it.) I am either doing my job in the way that I should, and the expectations should be of a satisfactory performance that provides students with an excellent experience, or I should receive guidance, counselling and remedial assistance from my employer. Ultimately, if I don’t meet the standards then I should probably be fired. But if I’m doing well, then that is my job and I don’t need a piece of paper or a cheque to make things better. In fact, that money and time (in deciding upon the awards or writing the applications) should be directed to people who need the improvement, not people who are excelling. I have a meeting with my boss on Friday week and he will tell me whether I’m meeting standard or not.

Now there is a great deal of difference between writing a long application for an award (which is probably not the best investment of time and is seeking extrinsic recognition) and being sent on a course that might be useful because you’ve demonstrated an ability to do something (providing you with useful skills and the ability to develop further). As a general principle, skill development is going to be more useful than a pat on a head. Skill development also works for everyone, it’s just that the courses you use for development vary from person to person.

But this is, of course, completely at odds with the extensive systems of measurement that are now being placed on academics. We are (with widely varying levels of accuracy) measured extensively in terms of learning and teaching, research and administration. By not applying for these awards, I may be significantly altering my possibility of later promotion and opportunity. And, yet, I have to ask myself if I really need to be promoted? What does it mean? I’ve already discovered that people are happy to let you do a wide range of jobs without the requisite ‘academic level’ if you can demonstrate enough aptitude. Sure, it would mean I’d never be able to do certain jobs but, having a look at those jobs, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. 🙂

This is a strange time for me. I can now see the strings around me and how they’ve pulled me around for all of my life. Because I am such a strong believer in being as honest as possible with my students, it has forced me to be honest with myself, as I tear apart the framework I teach within to see how I can improve it and help my students to become self-regulated, intrinsically motivated and happy. Authenticity is the core for me and it is why I can teach with passion.

I was looking at Facebook recently and thinking about the “Like” button. I use it to mean “I am happy about this” or “I support you” but, rather than telling someone this, I hit the “Like” button. I’ve recently noticed that there are “Like” levels in WordPress and as I’ve hit, arbitrary, milestones I’ve received insincere automated badges.

Some of my readers (thank you, again) have been letting me know how they have been using the stuff from here and that has been really helpful for me. I realise that, in this community, “Like” generally means “I agree” or “Nicely written thoughts that ring true” but getting an actual account of how someone has used something that I said turned out to be really powerful. (Unsurprisingly, given how much Kohn I’m reading at the moment!)

So – where to from here? The first thing is to keep to my 40-45 hour working week. That has allowed me to get enough reflection time to get to this stage. I suspect the next is to keep plugging away at everything. This is most definitely not the time to throw everything in the air and meditate in a field. I’ve been trying to think about the advice that I would give to a student in a similar situation and I think I would tell them to keep doing everything and set some time aside over the next couple of weeks to identify the key issues, then start stripping away clutter until they were able to get a clear view of how they could achieve what was important to them. It will, at least, be a start.

3 Comments on “Puppet on a String: A Summary of My Corruption by Extrinsic Rewards”

  1. Mark Guzdial says:

    Are incentives really all bad? Isn’t it natural for us to be influenced by incentives? Isn’t it part of being human to appreciate and enjoy incentives? It’s important to be aware of them, but I don’t see harm in enjoying them.

    There is an advantage to sticking with something until you’re past most incentives, when you’re beyond getting traditional rewards. There is joke that goes, “What’s the difference between a tenured full professor and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.” There are no more promotions available to me. I think I’m officially categorized as “deadwood.” I do appreciate getting accolades from my University leadership when I do. I don’t do what I do explicitly to get those accolades — and I, unfortunately, am nearly as likely to receive their admonition these days.


    • nickfalkner says:

      It’s a good question and I think that difficult part is that whether an incentive is bad depends on what it does to the receiver/perceiver. If the incentive is a recognition of skill achievement and progression that doesn’t reduce your overall enjoyment/desire to carry out that skill, then it’s fine. The problem for me is that I don’t seem to enjoy many incentives at all – I feel manipulated by them. This blog, as always, is the exploration of my own thoughts on things and has never pretended to be the reflections of an expert. 🙂 In this case, I think that how you view rewards and incentives depends on how much people have tried to manipulate you with them in the past, rather than try and do something constructive that takes more effort.

      So, to answer your question, I don’t think that all incentives are bad for all people, but certain incentive structures are probably bad for most people, and I appear to be one of the people for whom most rewards feel like overt manipulation. I think that Kohn’s list of how to give non-manipulative praise is quite useful here and it would certainly feel better to me.

      Having said that, I’m absolutely fine with ‘achievements’ based on work that I’ve done because I’m interested, which have then netted ‘measurable’ outcomes. So, for example, this year I’ve been successful in publishing at a good level, as well as getting some research grants. I’m very comfortable with those achievements because I didn’t do the underlying work JUST for this reason and the grants were all achieved through open processes and reasonable application processes. What I haven’t been comfortable with is being praised for doing so, especially in public, where I feel that it sets up a wedge between staff who haven’t got there yet and me. I’m very happy with the quality of my teaching from student feedback and performance, but it would feel strange to me to receive an award just for doing my job.

      Is that just arguing terminology, from a very personal perspective? Possibly. However, there is also the possibility that I am, somehow, past the incentive point and have been for some time – yet am trapped by my culture and upbringing to seek the rewards that I neither really want nor need. (I feel like I should be lying on a couch at this juncture!)

      To address the reducing level of accolade, in an earlier post, I talked about card shouting and the fact that you can see a behavioural aspect (reacting to an external stimulus) from what is the natural effect of a random process with a given distribution. In your case, having run out of good things to give you, there is a smaller pool of ‘good’ to balance the ‘GUZDIAL!!!!’ (Imagine the voice of the Dean from Animal House, if you will) aspects, hence the latter must improve in proportion, despite probably not increasing in quantity.

      To add to the complexity of how accolades are awarded, I suspect that there is an aspect of process in here, as well. If my learning and teaching is good enough to receive an award, then it should be obvious and not require me to write a multi-page document explaining what I’m doing.

      In my personal life, I experience a very low level of manipulation and I have deliberately removed as many ‘reward’ mechanisms as possible. My wife and I regularly give each other small gifts (for fun) but they’re always based on a detailed knowledge of the other person, often of very low value and to either be interesting or because we know that the other person will like it. However, there is no giant ‘anniversary’ or ‘Valentine’s’ celebration on our calendar, unless we need an excuse to get out of something – nor do we exchange huge birthday or Christmas gifts. The small gifts that are exchanged, often with little fanfare and no determinable sequence, are a reflection of the fact that we are thinking of each other and we saw something cool and thought that the other might like it – but the presence or absence of a gift is not a lever. Sometimes it’s just photographs shared from our phones, or links to interesting things that we’ve seen. Thinking about this, it’s interesting how I’ve managed to arrange my personal life in a way that works so well for me (and the arrangement as such is of course a mutual decision) when I don’t seem to have managed (or don’t appreciate that I have managed) such process maturity in my everyday life.

      Thank you for the question – it gave me a great deal to think about.


      • Mark Guzdial says:

        As always, deep and interesting thoughts, Nick! It is hard not to respond to positive strokes. I do understand about the value of achievements you do just because, and the ones you struggle for because you need to. The just-because achievements always feel like greater value.


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