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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Revolutionary look at rewards and how they make problems!!!

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
By Alfie Kohn

This is a fantastic revelation regarding the reward system that everyone seems to thinks is a cure all for everything from teaching kids in school to encouraging productivity in the workplace. Common sense seems to dictate that rewards should work. I have to admit that having gone through this system I also have a lot of difficulty accepting that rewards can have a detrimental effect. I mean I can accept that rewards may not always work perfectly but that they actually do damage seems tough to swallow.

However difficult to accept, the author has cited about 30 pages worth of references and more than 70 pages of notes to support his claim. Kohn's argument is thus very carefully constructed with many examples of experiments that show how rewards can hinder everything from productivity to creativity and even relationships.

The author first points out how rewards are merely thinly disguised consequences and are essentially equivalent. Examples of  how a reward can turn into a consequence seems to pop up everywhere in epidemic proportions. For example a teacher may promise a movie field trip to her class if they all behave for the entire week. Reward; right? But what if she doesn't end up bringing them because she decides they haven't behaved? Suddenly the reward has turned face and become a punishment.

If you bring this a step further; one might see that once a reward is offered for a certain behaviour or task completion, this certain behaviour or task suddenly becomes a barrier to obtaining the reward. Not only that but apparently according to the literature the person promised the reward will only do as much as necessary to get the reward. That is they will only do what is needed to break through the barrier so to speak to get to the reward.

Since the task to be completed is all that is done to get reward; the person just focuses on that task. It has been shown that the person now has a kind of tunnel vision and is not open to other possibilities. In study after study the results are the same: giving rewards for completing a task leads to diminished creativity. In one example subjects asked to memorize a list of words on different coloured cards were split into two groups. One group was promised a reward based on how many words they could remember. The second group was not promised anything. The group that wasn't promised a reward was able to remember not only the words but what colour of card the word was on. The group that was promised the rewards could remember words but was oblivious to the fact that some words were on different coloured cards. This lends credence to the fact that rewards lead to tunnel vision. The non-rewards group seemed to be more open to other possibilities.

Another aspect discussed by Kohn is the contest structure. A telling quote goes as follows; "want to turn a room full of people into losers then give a prize to only one of them at a ceremony...". This is interesting because one would think that competitions should bring out the best performance. But what competitions tend to do in a group situation is to poison the team spirit. The other people in your group now become barriers to getting the prize. In order to achieve best results the synergy of a team is needed. When synergy occurs the total becomes greater than the sum of the parts. According to other authors such as Stephen R. Covey
(Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People) synergy is where you can expect to see astronomical improvements in productivity. Seriously; he is not talking about 200 percent increase in productivity and creativity he is talking 2,000% - 10,000% increases! I think maybe this is why the undermining of creativity by rewards is so dramatic when such possible high levels of productivity due to synergy are diminished!

The competition reward model leads directly into sales type scenarios. Here rewards are given for more sales no matter what. According to Kohn this leads to tunnel vision on the part of the sales representatives. The symptoms of this he says is all too evident in the resulting unethical and even illegal activities that these workers engage in to get the most sales. An example is selling something with pressure to someone they know doesn't need it. Apparently the team approach is almost non-existent in these scenarios as workers here undermine each other in the race for the prize.

The list of reward's casualties just keeps on going. Two groups of students were asked to tutor younger students in mathematics. One group was promised a reward and the second group none. In the final evaluation the no-reward group had significantly better results with their students performing better at the target subject. The reward group actually not only had lower performing students but the way they attempted to tutor them was entirely different than the non-reward tutors. Not only were their students less competent but while tutoring they were less patient and they also were quick to criticize and be-little their students. This can be extended to the way teachers are negatively impacted by administrators. When teacher's bosses play the reward game not only do the teachers suffer but the students do also.

I am about half way through this book. Currently the author has presented each argument from both sides. Many practical examples are cited where reward systems have been tried out and subsequently scrapped after failure. I am curious to see the future section on the arguments in favour of rewards by the behaviourists. Questions that I am plagued with are as follows: what happens to individuals who are more competitive; do they thrive in a reward based system?
Are these individuals a product of the reward based system they grew up in or is it something they are born with? Should we turn our society into a population of volunteers if rewards stand in front of ultimate productivity? How should our salary structure change to benefit all? The most difficult question of all though I think is what is the definitive alternative to a system of rewards and punishment? According to others such as Stephen Covey we should all search out win-win situations and maybe just maybe this is a clue. Stay tuned. -sak
10:09 am edt 

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