Punishing by Rewards — Motivational Techniques That Don’t Work

Motivation by PizzaThis podcast from Alexander Kjerulf, called “Why ‘Motivation by Pizza’ Doesn’t Work,” opened my eyes about the reasons behind motivation.  We were on the verge of implementing a member recognition/rewards program in our chapter when Clyde Parson sent me the link.  Kjerulf’s podcast was so good I listened to it twice.

In brief, Kjerulf says you can’t motivate someone by offering a reward, whether the reward is a bonus or a pizza, or whether it’s to steer clear of death. That type of motivation is called extrinsic motivation. It may work for a short while, but in the long run it fails.

Kjerulf cites a study from Alfie Kohn supporting this idea:

In one of Kohn’s examples, children in a small town were given points for every books they checked out of the local library during the summer vacation. The points could be redeemed for a free pizza, in an attempt to encourage reading.

The children in the program did indeed read more books than other children. But after the program ended, when reading no longer paid off in pizza, those children read far fewer books than others. Their own intrinsic desire to read books had been subsumed by the extrinsic reward, and when the pizza went away, so did the motivation.

In this example, the reward of pizza actually hurt the motivation of the children!

The only motivation that works is intrinsic motivation. People have to want to do something for themselves for the motivation to be long-term. Trying to motivate members to attend chapter meetings and participate on committees in exchange for a polo shirt at the end of the year is an idea based on extrinsic motivation — it probably wouldn’t work.

The Right Motivation

The way you motivate someone is by showing them results. Showing someone the results of their labors can inspire them to desire more of those results. For example, Kjerulf says if a salesman in your store talks to customer one day, and then the next day the customer walks into the store and buys 10,000 pounds of hi-fi stereo equipment without the original salesman’s knowledge, you should let the previous salesman know, because the results will inspire the salesman to do more sales.

Kjerulf also blogged about his ideas here, but his post doesn’t explore the results side of motivation.

From Theory to Practice

How do you motivate chapter members to volunteer their time and talents for the chapter? According to Kjerful, show them the positive results of their efforts. (And also provide praise, recognition, and make it fun. But the results part is what convinced me most.)

I am so totally persuaded by this method that I asked my wife to take down the treasure box charts we keep for our kids at home. According to the treasure chest method, if Avery is good by doing her chores and reading books, she gets to advance a square until she eventually reaches a treasure chest square and gets a prize from the dollar store. Seems to work well, but not really. She despises cleaning and it’s always a big struggle.

Today we were doing some cleaning and I made no mention of a reward. The only reward was that I tried to make cleaning fun by cleaning beside her and talking with her. She was Cinderella mopping the floor and loved it. After we finished cleaning one bathroom, she asked if we could clean the other.


Madcap FlareAdobe Robohelp

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

13 thoughts on “Punishing by Rewards — Motivational Techniques That Don’t Work

  1. Pingback: Incentive Intelligence

  2. Alexander Kjerulf

    Thanks for listening to my podcast and thanks especially for trying it in practice. I’m very happy that you find it useful.

    And I’m very relieved that it actually worked, considering that you tested the method on your own flesh and blood :o)

  3. Pingback: A motivational tip that actually works

  4. Pingback: The Way The Internet Should Be! » Blog Archive » A motivational tip that actually works

  5. eldavo

    Tom consider this comment a RESULT of APPRECIATION :)

    Since I’m nearly through the archive of your TechWriterVoices podcasts, your blogs on other peoples podcasts is great to read, and link to someone’s ineresting and relevant podcast.

    Big thumbs up and “Well done!”

  6. Tom

    Thanks eldavo. I have been planning to add a podcast recommendations feed to my site for some time. I just finished adding it as a My Podcast Picks link on the Tech Writer Voices top nav bar as well.

    If you run across any other podcast recommendation feeds, let me know.

  7. Pingback: Sustainable Workplace Motivation « Userware

  8. Life Coaching Melbourne

    I agree. Motivation through giving of rewards is not enough. Some might get tired of it or may want more. Showing the good results he/she of their work will motivate them to exert the same, or more, effort if given another task.

  9. light

    This motivational practice indeed works. I can attest it myself. I believe people get driven if they see the results of their effort. It is always inspiring of you, yourself know what you have worked hard has paid off.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>