Be careful with an “if-then” approach to reward and recognition

Everyone loves a bump in pay, extra time off, or other form of reward or recognition.  The problem is when managers start to rely on these types of extrinsic motivators too much and stop looking for the deeper intrinsic motivators that lead to long-term satisfaction and well-being at work.

Alfie Kohn first wrote about this in his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.  Daniel Pink picked up the banner most recently in his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

In both cases, the author’s point to social science research conducted over the past 50 years which shows that money and other extrinsic rewards can actually reduce motivation and ultimately performance if not used properly. 

(For a great introduction into some of this social science research, check out Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation which summarizes the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two long-time researchers in this field.)

Three warning signs

Are you falling into the “if-then” trap as a manager?  Here are three warning signs:

1. Instead of trying to understand what really motivates your direct reports, you increasingly rely on a carrot approach where you dangle incentives in front of employees to get them to engage in desired behaviors.

2. Instead of taking the time to fine tune job roles and responsibilities, you take an approach of, “We pay you a fair day’s wage and we expect a fair day’s work in return.”

3. Instead of helping people connect their work to a higher purpose, you instead insist that they stay focused on their own task and leave the big picture thinking to senior management.

With this type of thinking, it’s easy to fall into a transactional mindset as a manager.  Now work becomes mostly about getting the next raise, bonus, or other prize.  Don’t let incentives and compensation become the de facto manager in your organization.  Go beyond “if-then” thinking to discover what truly motivates your people. It’s time well-spent that will pay long-term benefits!


PS: Interested in learning more about creating a motivating work environment?  Check out these upcoming executive briefing presentations!

Creating an Engaging Work Environment: The Leader’s Role

The New Paradigm of Motivation: How to Make It Work


One thought on “Be careful with an “if-then” approach to reward and recognition

  1. Great blog David. I try to take this to heart in managing diverse resources. All managers who want to be leaders must move away from thinking of employees like Pavlov’s rats!

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