Punished by Rewards
By Rajeshwari Sharma
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'S, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn is a radical book. If you are familiar with Kohn’s works, this should not surprise you. The author is closely associated with radical thinking, given his wide renown for strong criticisms of competition and rewards and views on human behavior, education and parenting. His writing has influenced the thinking of educators, parents and managers around the world. Time magazine describes Kohn as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades and test scores."
Little wonder then that of all his books, the best known are Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), And The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms And "Tougher Standards" (1999).
In Punish by Rewards, Kohn argues that both rewards and punishments are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning. He says that our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: ‘Do this and you will get that.’ Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals. He says, “We ought to face the troubling fact that manipulating behavior by offering reinforcements may be a sound approach for training the family pet but not for bringing quality to the workplace.”
Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people's behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run. Pay-for-performance plans cannot work; the more an organization relies on incentives, the worse things get. He says rewards promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more artificial inducements are used to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what they have been lured to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into tedium.
While at a cursory glance, the book seems to be a consultant’s nightmare, a closer look highlights the dangers of using rewards without thinking about their long-term consequences. Kohn turns the carrots and sticks psychology on its head and challenges the popular incarnation of this doctrine that rewards or punishes both children and adults into compliance.
The book offers practical strategies for parents, teachers, and managers to look beyond rewards. Kohn suggests creating conditions for authentic motivation. Managers, according to him, should look for problems that need to be solved and help employees solve them; attend seriously and respectfully to the concerns of workers; provide plenty of informational feedback; and rethink current managerial style of using extrinsic motivators and controlling people’s behavior to keep employees motivated. Most of all, managers need to attend to three fundamental factors or three C’s of motivation – the collaboration that defines the context of work, the content of the tasks, and the extent to which people have some choice about what they do and how they do it.
In all, Punished by Rewards presents an argument that is debatable but cannot be dismissed. For those who are not willing to buy his argument, Kohn says he will be satisfied if they are at least questioning their teaching, parenting, or supervising after they finish reading the book. He invites readers to "Ride my train as far as you can and get off when you have to. Maybe later you'll hop aboard again, a little closer to 'working with' than 'doing to' and we can continue the journey." Although a lot more literature has been added to the field of motivation and rewards since the book got published in 1993, Punish by Rewards and Kohn’s thoughts still hold good. To quote French critic, journalist, and novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
So, whether you are a parent, educator or manager, Punish by Rewards will make you pause, take notice and rethink some of the ways we adopt in bringing about desired behaviors.