You Get the Behavior You Reward


A basic tenet of management is that you get the behavior that you reward.

The problem is that many times there are unintended consequences associated with the behavior that you get, and it ends up undermining the ultimate objective the reward was meant to encourage.

For example, I tell my students that I could guarantee nearly 100% attendance in every one of my classes, even if it was a class of second semester seniors, most of whom already have a job lined up for after graduation. I would simply make up a grading scheme where 100% of the grade was based just on attendance. If you never miss a class you get an “A”; if you miss one class, a “B”, and so on down to missing four classes results in an “F”.

My logic behind such a grading system might be that I think showing up for class and being an active participant in class discussions might be the most effective way for students to learn the material.

And assuming that students care about their grades, then I would certainly get the behavior – showing up for class- that I am rewarding. But that’s all I’ll get.

The students won’t be engaged in the learning process at all, since there’s no incentive to do so. While students might love such a class, I imagine it would be a complete disaster for the teacher, who created such a reward system thinking it was in the best interests of the student.

Alfie Kohn, in his outstanding book “Punished by Rewards”, talks about  these types of issues as well (only much better than I can do). The book is subtitled “the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes.” Here’s a brief summary from the web site:

Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people’s behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run. Promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.

So in my class attendance example, I would get temporary compliance, but I would not have changed their attitudes about the value of showing up for class as part of the learning process.

In the business world, many times well-meaning managers set-up reward systems which they believe will motivate the employees to  act in a way that is in the best interests of the company. However, most workers focus on doing what is best for themselves, which may not be in sync with what is best for the company.

Here’s one example: a sales manager may create an incentive in which her salespeople would get a commission equal to 10% of the total sales dollars the employee is able to bring in. Assuming that the commission is important to the salespeople, they will respond to this incentive by going out and trying to maximize sales dollars. Such a response is in the best interests of the salesperson, but it may not be in the best interests of the company.

The salesperson will focus on trying to maximize sales dollars, since that is what their commission is based on, and won’t really care too much about anything else related to the order, things that are important to the company. For instance, the salesperson will gladly offer great deals to his or her customers, and not really worry much about whether an order is profitable, since that is not their concern. The salesperson might give very generous payment terms, since again all he or she is focused on is making the sale, and not worry about when the customer will pay, or if the customer will ever pay.

In this case, there is a relatively simple fix, base the salesperson’s commission on the profitability of the order, and not just the sales value of the order. Doing so will align the what is good for the salesperson with what is good for the company.

Dan Pink, in his great Ted talk on the Puzzle of Motivation, also gives many examples about how rewards often lead to worse performance. The key, according to Pink, is to focus on intrinsic rewards, such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose and not extrinsic rewards such as bonuses or raises. If you can get people excited about doing work that matters, provide an opportunity for them to learn how to excel at doing such work, and create an environment where they have the freedom to do such work, the results will be great for both the employee and employer.

The bottom line is that all of us need to think about the types of rewards we are using as a way to get the behavior that we want from others, whether we are acting as parents, teachers, business people, or policy makers. You’ll get the behavior that you reward, just make sure that it’s the behavior that you want.

Before I began writing today’s blog post, I had been thinking of ways to attract more readers to my blog. I was all set to start paying people $100 for every one of my posts they would read, but according to Alfie Kohn, that would be like a bribe, and people would soon lose interest in reading my blog, and I certainly don’t want that to happen.

So I think the best way to get people to read my blog is to just remind them of how much better a person you will be as a result of reading my blog.

So if you have read this far, you aren’t any richer, but at least you’re a better person. Really, you are…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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