Developing as a leader and as a person has more to do with paying attention to the relationships around you than it does the last training seminar you attended. What have you learned about yourself by watching the behaviors your actions have generated in others? Are people more open, courageous, creative, confident and happy around you? Or are they withdrawn, non-participative and agitated? What does this say about your management style or leadership? Who will you talk to about what you see? What can you do to change? Of course it is possible that you believe that agitating and keeping people on edge is the best way to motivate high performance. This line of still popular management lore assumes that people will not give their best work unless without the right mix of carrots and sticks (i.e., rewards and punishments) controlling their behavior.
The bad news about this belief is that it is a myth. The assumption that rewarding activity yields more of it and punishing activity yields less of it simply does not pan out. Rewards and punishments applied to intrinsic motivation does not respond at all to pattern – motivation simply evaporates – although this does not hold in all situations. There are still some highly repetitive jobs that benefit from extrinsic motivation. But think this through carefully, carrots and sticks may result in:
- Extinguished intrinsic motivation. Researchers discovered that contingent rewards dampen interest in tasks requiring heuristic action. Why? Because contingent rewards required people to relinquish some of their autonomy hence diminishing their motivation.
- Diminished performance. Once basic life needs are covered incentives the higher the incentive the lower the performance in many cases in direct contradiction of accepted business sense.
- Crushed creativity. People rewarded for addressing a conceptual challenge perform far less creatively and efficiently than people given the challenge for the challenge’s sake. Rewards by their very nature narrow focus hence cloud thinking and dull creativity.
- Suppressed good behavior. Research demonstrates that adding incentives to intrinsically motivated behaviors actually diminish the frequency of the behavior. When incentives disregard the ingredients of genuine motivation (i.e., autonomy, purpose and mastery) they limit achievement.
- Exhibition of cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. “Goals people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But Goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”
- Addictive behaviors. The research of Russian economist Anton Suvorov demonstrated that rewards often signal that a task is undesirable. Enticing rewards then result in action the first time – but the level of enticement needed to continue the action consistently grows. Rewards become expected and feel less like a bonus and more like an entitlement. Rewards’ addictive qualities actually distort decision-making.
- Fostering short-term thinking. This is illustrated ad nausea in Wall Street motivated business decisions that focus on short-term at the cost of strategic long-term perspectives. (Recall Collins’ work, Good to Great.)
Rewards are not all bad. Tasks that neither need deep thinking nor deep passion may be helped by the presence of rewards – success in the application of rewards is enhanced by:
- Offering a simple rationale for why the task is necessary – explanations help a job that is not inherently interesting become more meaningful and hence more engaging.
- Acknowledging that the task is boring – this act of empathy helps people understand why this instance of “if-then” rewards are needed.
- Allowing people to complete the task in their own way – think autonomy versus control. Give freedom for how a job is done.
 Daniel H. Pink. Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009), 50.