Punished by Rewards – A Review of the Book by Alfie Kohn

There is a whole industry dedicated to the provision of rewards programmes for performance and almost every organisation on this planet in one way or another runs their business on the basis of providing rewards for performance. Lets be clear right here that the reward is something extra, something other than the wage that has been agreed as the going rate for the job.

Without reading “Punished by Rewards” it may be difficult to appreciate Alfie’s point but let me give an example from the book. Alfie tells us one story about a scheme sponsored by Pizza Hut in North America to encourage children to read. He tells us that in order to encourage literacy, children were promised a pizza for every book that they read.

On the surface it sounds perfectly laudable until you examine the detail of what actually happened. These children instead of being encouraged to read, now saw books as obstacles between themselves and a pizza, and that the obstacle had to be surmounted as quickly and with as little effort as possible. Thus instead of finding joy in the act of reading, the books these children read were selected by them on the basis of how thin they were and the size of the typeface so that they could qualify for their free pizzas as quickly as possible.

As Alfie notes, instead of encouraging children to develop an interest in books, this programme produced “fat kids who couldn’t read.” In the first five chapters of this book Alfie Kohn turns our understanding of what is accepted as a basic tenet of our management practice, on its head. He does it with such startling logic that it is impossible not to get it, and although his history is principally in education his experience as a behaviourist means that the lessons he learned in the field of education are as surgically relevant wherever we find one set of people trying to make another set of people work harder. He goes on to show us in a hundred different ways, through stories and example, how what we assumed was a way to get people to perform, actually has the completely opposite effect.

Alfie tells a brilliant story to illustrate the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and the effect one has on the other, in the case of an old gentleman who lived on the route home outside a local school in America. The children had taken it upon themselves to stop outside his house to fire abuse at him, safe in the knowledge that he could not chase them.

But the old man had a plan. One day he called to the children and asked them if they would come back the following day to abuse him again, if he paid them a dollar each. The children were delighted and duly turned up the following day to earn their dollar, and spent the afternoon hurtling more abuse at the man. The man waited until they had finished then apologised because he would only be able to pay them 50 cents for the same thing on the following day. The children agreed that fifty cents would be OK so they returned the following day. Again the old man waited until they had finished then apologised again, tomorrow he would only be able to give them 10 cents each.

At this the children turned up their noses and refused to abuse him any more.

The old man had taken something that these children were clearly enjoying and by rewarding them for doing it, he completely changed the way that they felt about what they were doing until they would not consider doing it unless they were paid. By rewarding them with an Extrinsic Motivator, he had robbed them of their joy, their Intrinsic Motivator. Alfie shows us how managers do this exact same thing to their workforces every time they attempt to influence performance by giving rewards. But still they do it because they know of no other way to influence the performance of their workforces. This is while the world is reeling under the current crisis caused by bankers who were blinded to the long term effects of their financial strategies by their short term pursuit of individual rewards.

If you don’t read this book you will be able to continue giving rewards for performance in the knowledge that what you are doing is improving the performance of your workforce. If you consider reading this book, be prepared to discover that almost all of the things that you ever considered to be good management practice, are not.