Search results

Punishing by Rewards -- Motivational Techniques That Don't Work

by Tom Johnson on Jun 11, 2007
categories: technical-writing

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.


About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.