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VINE VOICEon 20 December 2010
Is the widespread business practice of incentives, merit awards, and other rewards desirable in business ? This is an important question. After all, an organisation's reward policies are often an important element in its culture.

It is a question that Alfie Kohn addresses in his book "Punished by Rewards". Kohn makes a blistering attack on the culture of contingent rewards (do this and get a reward), presenting extensive evidence that such rewards bring no long term benefit and, in fact, are positively counter-active: destroying cooperation and teamwork (with group incentives discouraging cooperation between groups); and creating unhealthy conflicts between managers and staff. Rewards, he shows, create an organisation of dysfunctional mercenaries, rather than a supportive team of problem solvers.

The evidence presented is convincing - individual and group incentives undermine the cooperative, inquisitive, mutually respectful, problem solving culture we should be aiming for. Furthermore, Mr Kohn argues that reward structures distract attention from the root causes of problems that affect performance. Rewards encourage risk avoidance, "passing the buck", and keeping quiet about mistakes; and they discourage creativity and action to improve business processes.

Mr Kohn summarises his arguments thus: "when we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it, and no more". Rewards may encourage activity, but they impact adversely on quality, commitment and engagement. The trouble is that the reward becomes the end in itself. Instead of working together to improve the process, we work as individuals to determine the easiest route to gain the reward.

Mr Kohn is equally dismissive of performance appraisal or evaluation for the same reasons - extrinsic targets, and hoops to jump through, destroy intrinsic motivation. The demotivating effect of individual evaluation is compounded if the rewards are artificially limited (I know of many workplaces where only a set percentage of staff can get a "grade one" and so on). The evaluation process then becomes actively destructive, leading to feelings of being cheated, and accusations of managers playing politics. Such practices are, essentially, about control - and people resent being controlled.

So if rewards, incentives, and merit awards are not helpful to lean, what do we do to motivate performance ? Make the work intrinsically interesting of course !

But what if we want to reward success ? Well the key is not to make the reward dependent on some contingency (e.g. "performance") but to have an egalitarian approach (a profit share scheme with fair and transparent criteria for example). But surely, I hear you cry, that means that the "slackers" are rewarded the same as the "stars". Yes, that's true; and there are two answers to this point:

Firstly, we need to look at the root causes of why some people are allegedly "slacking", and improve processes accordingly. Perhaps it is for personal reasons, in which case we need to provide suitable support. Or perhaps it is because of problems with the work, in which case we need to involve them in improving their work processes.

Secondly, every organisation needs a range of personality types to succeed, and you'll usually find that the "stars" shine because of the great support they have. Even great salespeople will only do really well if they have great administrative support; a fantastic customer service team; and splendid after-sales backup. It is unfair, and will destroy the process, if only the "star" is rewarded.

As Frederick Herzberg said, "Managers do not motivate employees by giving them higher wages, more benefits or new status symbols. Rather employees are motivated by their own inherent need to succeed at a challenging task". To this end, Kohn lays out two criteria for judging a rewards policy:
1. Are we encouraging the individual to make his or her own judgements about what constitutes good performance?
2. Are we creating the conditions for the person to become more deeply involved in what he or she is doing?

So what is the antidote to the destructive effects of the incentive pay culture ? It is to pay people fairly and equitably (according to their skills and length of service for example); to maximise their motivation by involving them in the design and improvement of their work; to give them opportunities to change roles regularly; and to support them to develop collaborative problem solving and decision making processes.

I have focussed on the business aspects of Mr Kohn's book here, but he spends more time in the book on the motivation of children to learn - and is equally scathing about rewards in school. Instead he argues for the creation in schools of a culture of collaboration, choice and involvement in the content taught.

The book can be a bit heavy going at times, and probably could makes its case in a half of the space, but it is well written and compelling. His arguments are powerful and persuasive. The carrot and stick don't work. We need to sit up and change the culture of our businesses and schools to something that engenders engagement, involvement and commitment.
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on 7 February 2003
The book's central contention - that incentives are frequently counter-productive - has enormous implications for the way we organise our schools and our businesses. Kohn marshalls impressive research and combines it with an engaging writing style.
So many of us believe that you "get what you reward" but Kohn presents a fascinating challenge to this view. So much of what he has to say about performance incentives is a major warning signal for educationalists and businesspeople.
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on 18 July 2015
Behavioural approaches are rife in schools. The problem is, children aren't puppies and relationships matter far more than tangible rewards. If children are from 'nice' homes, it often works - but then these children are rarely more than silly. For insecure, deprived children, with the potential for highly disruptive behaviour, stickers and detentions just don't work in the long term. In many schools I've worked in, poor behaviour is blamed on teachers not implementing the rewards/sanctions policy properly, This book suggests that the rewards/sanctions policy is to blame. Certainly my own experience suggests that building relationships with children works far better - children don't misbehave nearly so much if they feel valued and know you enjoy spending time with them. When stickers do work, it's not because they got a sticker, it's because someone they respect and whose regard they want gave it to them.
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on 22 June 2016
A book that makes sense in so many ways. It's amazing how many teachers and bosses, think that rewards makes people work better and do not realise that they only set low level goals that give absolutely no sense of achievement.
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on 19 January 2015
A compelling read for a new head. Seems counter intuitive but provides compelling evidence to back up his ideas. But pop behaviourism is so common place it is imbedded in our lives at home and at work unsettling to think we have to change it. Loved it.
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on 26 October 2012
This book really challenges deeply held beliefs at the heart of behaviour management in our primary schools. It has certainly made me rethink my own strategies.

It is very repetitive though and the sections feel a bit clunky but would definitely recommend reading.
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on 25 October 2007
Major concerns of this book are the way we are treated in school and at work. Here are some statements about these matters whose truth struck me:

"Aside from any immediate return, we have to note the possible long-term effect of education."

"... we have to explain the behavior of those who pay for or approve those who teach.

"... the use of a standard wage as something which may be discontinued unless the employee works in a given manner is not too great an advance [from slavery]."

These concerned statements are not from Alfie Kohn: they are B.F. Skinner's, from his 1953 work "Science and Human Behavior". Kohn's book relies a lot on an unusually harsh way of presenting that science.

Alfie Kohn mentioned in the preface taking a psychology class based on Skinner's experimental work with rats and seemed put off by it. But the work with rats was just a start for Skinner and apparently a sound one: working with an apparently "simpler" organism gave Skinner a chance to uncover many principles. Hardly enough to "explain away" people - or rats. And these principles were present long before Skinner, just as evolution was present (at least for evolutionists) long before Darwin.

Although some of Skinner's works are cited as references for this book, Skinner's 1953 "Science and Human Behavior" isn't to be found among the references even though a entire section of it on "Controlling Agencies" is devoted to understanding the way schools, workplacees, governments, religion, and psychotherapist use control. Skinner knew that being ignorant of controls was unwise. Ahd he wrote about it because didn't want you to be ignorant about control.

"Punished by Rewards" seems like two book in one.

The first is a concern, not unlike Skinner's and probably most of us who have been to school and work, against being manipulated. That seems a good concern but hardly a concern one needs Kohn to point out. I'd trust you would see those problems yourself and, if motivated, I'm sure you could find ways to address them (and, to some extent, likely have).

The second book is a smearing of Skinner and Behaviorism, which Kohn associates closely with what he calls "pop behaviorism". What's "pop behaviorism"? Kohn writes its core is "Do this and you'll get that". Sound modern? Oddly, he admits that "rewards were in use long before a theory was devised to explain and systemize their practice". He also refers to "the popular version of behaviorism, whereby we try to solve problems by offering people a goody if they do what we want." Haven't people been doing this for thousands of years? Did they need Skinner and behaviorists to learn that? Is Skinner and the behaviorists responsible if abuses of their findings were made?

It was, after all, Skinner who noted many manipulations and sought to help us all to overcome them , as in "Science and Human Behavior" and his concerns about piecework and gambling systems. It was, after all, Skinner, who encouraged people to join together to design and live in alternative societies, as with his book "Walden Two". It was Skinner who warned against misguided practices that threaten all humanity in "Beyond Freedom and Dignity". The Skinner willing to explore being "beyond freedom and dignity" was the same Skinner who taught us about controlling agencies in "Science and Human Behavior".

In the preface, Kohn writes that Skinner "would have been appalled by the result", meaning this book. I'm not so sure. I think it is more likely that Skinner would have agreed with much of it for much the same reasons that W. Edwards Deming did, that it notes misuses of control. And if Skinner could brush off Chomsky's criticism by recognizing Chomsky didn't understand Skinner's work, there can be no doubt that he could have brushed off Kohn's criticism. When asked before this book was published, he was kind enough to interview with Kohn. Skinner, 80 years old, answers a series of pointed questions (included as an Appendix to this book) with ease, grace, wit and sensitivity.

Why Kohn felt the need to use Skinner and Behaviorism as punching bags in a book about rewards I don't know. It seems inconsistent with Kohn's concerns about competition and manipulation, doesn't it? Skinner and Behaviorism is, in good part, about reinforcement: reinforcments may not be rewards and rewards may not be reinforcements.

As to "pop behaviorism", a term which seems closely tied to Kohn, that describes a way of manipulating that goes back to the snake with Eve. Skinner's Radical Behaviorism appears to offer far better tools to understand and avoid "pop behaviorism" than Kohn does. But rather than oppose the two, I wish Kohn would reconsider Skinner's Radical Behaviorism, in which case he might be able to write a truly fine book by applying Skinner's work as well as learning from Skinner's maturity, depth of thought, and sense of fair play.
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on 2 August 2014
no complaints
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on 29 March 2013
An insightful book, easy read, even funny at times - it could be much shorter, though, without loss of clarity of the presentation.
Being repetitive at times is the only drawback I could find.
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on 16 June 2014
An excellent thought-provoking read. Challenges many of the preconceived ideas in education about praise and reward. Glad I bought it.
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