Reduce Productivity and Decrease MotivationA study recently published in Organization Science (“Motivational Spillovers from Awards: Crowding Out in a Multitasking Environment”) reviewed the results of data from an attendance award program at one of five laundry plants in the U.S. Midwest. They concluded:

  • “Reward-motivated employees responded positively to the awards by reducing tardiness, but gamed the system to maintain eligibility using sick days and reverted back to poor attendance behavior when they lost eligibility in a given month.
  • The awards crowded out intrinsic motivation in internally-motivated employees, who were already performing well by coming on time in the absence of rewards. These employees had increased tardiness after the program was implemented and they lost eligibility.
  • The awards decreased motivation and productivity for internally-motivated workers, suggesting these employees were unhappy because of fairness and equity concerns.
  • In total, the award program cost the plant 1.4 percent of daily productivity, mainly because of the lost productivity by internally-motivated employees.”

Bribing people to perform turns them into mercenaries. It debases, degrades, and demeans work. It sets a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle into motion — incentives, inducements, rewards, and the like leave people feeling manipulated and overly focused on what they get for complying with management’s goals and direction (tuned only to WIFM — “what’s in it for me”).

The emptier work is, the more people look elsewhere for fulfillment; so they demand more money and incentives to continue working in such a meaningless, unfulfilling job (which then “proves” to managers that people won’t improve their performance unless they’re bribed to do so). Incentives are rarely an effective rallying point for high performance. That’s often because extrinsic rewards don’t provide deeper meaning and inspiration for a bigger cause and purpose.

Weak managers try to use incentives as a motivator to direct behavior. Strong leaders shower their teams and organizations with recognition and rewards to reinforce desired behavior:

Traditional Management Approach

  • Lead with to manipulate, control, and direct behavior

Leadership-Based Approach


  • Follow with to support organization change and improvement
  • Do it to employees to push motivational buttons
  • Do it with people to develop meaningful systems and practices
  • Paternalistic pats on the head
  • Participative, respectful partnerships
  • Management decides who gets rewarded and recognized for meeting their goals
  • Customer input helps management and partners decide who and how to reward and recognize
  • Assume performance problems are from lazy, unmotivated, and uncaring people
  • Poorly designed systems, structures, and processes leave people feeling powerless and uncaring

How are you or your organization using rewards and recognition?

See Recognition, Appreciation, and Celebration for more on pitfalls and traps, do’s and don’ts, Thoughts That Make You Go Hmmm…, keys, and other resources.