Wrath of Kohn: Well, More Thoughts on “Punished by Rewards”

Yesterday, I was discussing my reading of Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” and I was talking about a student focus to this but today I want to talk about the impact on staff. Let me start by asking you to undertake a quick task. Let’s say you are looking for a new job, what are the top ten things that you want to get from it? Write them down – don’t just think about them, please – and have them with you. I’ll put a picture of Kohn’s book here to stop you looking ahead. 🙂

It’s ok, I’ll wait. Written your list?

How far up the list was “Money”? Now, if you wrote money in the top three, I want you to imagine that this new job will pay you a fair wage for what you’re going to do and you won’t have any money troubles. (Bit of a reach, sometimes, I know but please give it a try.) With that in mind, look at your list again.

Does the word “excellent incentive scheme” or “great bonus package” figure anywhere on that list? If it does, is it in the top half or the bottom half? If Money wasn’t top three, where was it for you?

According to Kohn, very few people actually to make money the top of their list – it tends to be things like ‘type of work’, ‘interesting job’, ‘variety’, ‘challenge’ and stuff like that. So, if that’s the case, why do so many work incentive schemes revolve around giving us money or bonuses as a reward if, for the majority of the population, it’s not the thing that we want? Well, of course, it’s easy. Giving feedback or mentoring is much harder than a $50 gift card, a $2,000 bonus or 500 shares. What’s worse is, because it’s money, it has to be allocated in an artificial scarcity environment or it’s no longer a bonus, it’s an expectation. If you didn’t do this, then the company might go bankrupt.

What if, instead, when you did something really good, you received something that made it easier for you to do all of your work as a recognition of the fact that you’re working a lot? Of course, this would require your manager to have a really good idea of what you were doing and how to improve it, as well as your company being willing to buy you that backlit keyboard with the faux-mink armrest that will let you write reports without even a twinge of arm strain. Some of this, obviously, is part of minimum workplace standards but the idea is that you get something that reflects that your manager understands what you’ve done and is trying to help you to develop further. Carefully selected books, paid trips to useful training, opportunities to further display your skill – all of these are probably going to achieve more of the items on your 10-point list than money will. To quote Kohn, quoting Gruenberg (1980), “The Happy Worker: An Analysis of Educational and Occupational Differences in Determinants of Job Satisfaction”, American Journal of Sociology, 86, pp 267-8:

“Extrinsic rewards become an important determinant of overall job satisfaction only among workers for whom intrinsic rewards are relatively unavailable.”

There are, Kohn argues, many issues with incentive schemes as reward and one of these is the competitive environment that it fosters. I discussed this yesterday so I’ll move to one of the other, which is focusing on meeting the requirements for reward at the expense of quality and in a way that is as safe as possible. Let me give you an example that I recently encountered outside of work: Playing RockBand or SingStar (music games that score your performance). Watch me and my friends who actually sing playing a singing game: yes, we notice the score, but we don’t care about the score. We interpret, we mess around, we occasionally affect the voices of the Victorian-era female impersonator characters from Little Britain. Then watch other groups of people who are playing the game to make the highest score. They don’t interpret. They don’t harmonise spontaneously. In many cases, they barely even sing and focus on making the minimum tunefully accurate noise possible at exactly the right time, having learned the sequence, to achieve the highest score. The quality of the actual singing is non-existent, because this isn’t singing, it’s score-maximisation. Similarly, risk taking has been completely removed. (As an aside, I have excellent pitch and, to my ears, most people who try to maximise their score sound out of tune because they are within the tolerances that the game accepts, but by choosing not to actually sing, there is no fundamental thread of musicality that runs through their performance. I once saw a professional singer deliver a fantastic version of a song, only to be rated as mediocre by the system,)

On Saturday, my wife and I went to the Melbourne-based Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) to attend the Game Masters gaming exhibition. It was fantastic, big arcade section and tons of great stuff dedicated to gaming. (Including the design document for Deus Ex!) There were lots of games to play, including SingStar (Scored karaoke), RockBand (multi-instrument band playing with feedback and score) and some dancing games. Going past RockBand, Katrina pointed out how little fun the participants appeared to be having and, on looking at it, it was completely true. The three boys in there were messing around with pseudo-musical instruments but, rather than making a loud and joyful noise, they were furrowed of brow and focused on doing precisely the right things at the right times to get positive feedback and a higher score. Now, there are many innovations emerging in this space and it is now possible to explore more and actually take some risks for innovation, but from industry and from life experience, it’s pretty obvious that your perception of what you should be doing and where the reward is going to come from make a huge difference.

If your reward is coming from someone/something else, and they set a bar of some sort, you’re going to focus on reaching that bar. You’re going to minimise the threats to not reaching that bar by playing it safe, colouring inside the lines, trying to please the judge and then, if you don’t get that reward, you’re far more likely to stop carrying out that activity, even if you loved it before. And, boy, if you don’t get that reward, will you feel punished.

I’m not saying Kohn is 100% correct, because frankly I don’t know and I’m not a behaviourist, but a lot of this rings true from my own experience and his use of the studies included in his book, as well as the studies themselves, are very persuasive. I look forward to some discussion on these points!

One Comment on “Wrath of Kohn: Well, More Thoughts on “Punished by Rewards””

  1. […] with an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. I’m strongly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, unsurprisingly given I’ve already shown my hand on Focault! But there are many other writers […]


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