Extrinsic Reward Systems are Perpetuating Workplace Problems

There! I said it as clearly as I can. And my response was not my fault: I just read another one of those posts in LinkedIn about, “How to Motivate your employees.”

The typical answers tend to look like this, which is discouraging since we know it does not work in the real world of managing people and performance:

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So, I popped into the comments section and added a few thoughts about how managers can be more effective and motivate more of the people within any workgroup..

The Dan Pink presentation at TED (search “Dan Pink RSA” for the most interesting version which I think is this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc ) and Dan’s book, “Drive,” and Alphie Kohn’s classic work, “Punished by Rewards,” all detail why our beliefs in how to use rewards is not working and is also somewhat reckless.

My personal belief on all this is a bit odd, but possibly correct. There is a lot of both research support as well as the personal comments of most people about reward systems that supports the view that extrinsic rewards are motivating, but what they actually motivate may be far different from the kinds of performance that people want in their work.

Here goes:

Those people who are Most Rewarded by the extrinsic reward systems installed by most organizations to reward most behaviors are the ones who are seen as Most Cooperative and Most Effective when viewed through the results and outcomes of those operating in those same reward systems. In other words, if we have a reward system and some people respond well to them, they are motivated by the rewards. We should also promote them to jobs in management, since they have measurably good performance.

SO, who else to promote than the people who respond best to extrinsic rewards in a system that operates on extrinsic rewards? We would obviously not even consider the average performer in such a system for a promotion, right? So, after a series of such decisions for promotions, what we generate is a selection of the top 10% of the performers being promoted, and the top 10% of those individuals being selected for promotion to the next level.

Remember that the boss’ boss’ bosss all respond to extrinsic rewards and are the ones who keep getting selected for upward mobility. The result is a pretty amazing uniform select population at the top that does not possibly come close to the average beliefs and frameworks of those average performers in the workplace. Top performers are seen as being,  “most like me,” when viewed by the boss.

Okay toss in a couple factors like: “Women in the Workplace.” Or some requirement for “diversity” and we create problems in symmetry.

Mighten these others be viewed as “Not Much Like Us,” when these extrinsic reward filters are used? Might there be a difference in how the different sexes and cultures and all those different people are viewed when results are filtered through these extrinsic reward systems that most companies use to reward “Good Performance” and desired results? Many average people are obviously NOT motivated by extrinsic rewards designed to motivate the average performers.

Dan Pink’s materials should get your attention. He shares research that shows that extrinsic rewards often DECREASE performance in many situations such as those we face in this country these days and when it comes to how the workplace really operates. It is interesting stuff and you can view a 10 minute video of a presentation here.

If one is picking grapes, rewards for bushels picked per day might make sense. People will be motivated to pick grapes. But you sure better put in some controls on quality, or you will wind up with rocks and stems and all sorts of non-grape things in there if you reward “weight” or numbers of grapes with no regard to other factors. And people that work fast may not work safely. And vines may be damaged, inducing long term negative impacts.

Engagement is one key to helping generate involvement and performance improvement. Effective leadership is another. Dis-Un-Empowerment will work. Improve the effectiveness of the performance feedback systems.

I have added two new blogs – one is about the issues of managers in the workplace and on statistics about what the bad managers may choose to do differently. It is based on Gallup research and ascribed to Jim Clifton, CEO of that organization. You can view that post at this link. Another post that might be of interest is my blog (and associated article) on how to engage and motivate the people in the middle of the organization. You can view that blog here.

Remember, “The Round Wheels are already in the Square Wheeled wagon!”

SWs One - How Things Work

It is a LOT easier to involve and engage and help motivate the people that are already trained and who already know how things work. They have ideas for improvement, so involve and engage them.

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Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott atscott@squarewheels.com

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