Alfie Kohn is celebrating 25 years since he published his seminal book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. It was a book that helped me understand more about motivation, and why people do things.
From a sales perspective, it was a particularly challenging read, as it kiboshed the notion that salespeople are only interested and motivated with money. The doctrine lived by salespeople was simple, heads you win with incentives, commission or bonuses, tails you lose with threats of performance improvement plans, warnings, and beatings. Some would say that is the psychological contract you sign up to once you become a salesperson. I get that, being part of the sales profession all of my career I have been managed by, and lead teams by that mantra, and that was how it was.
But is that how it should be?
How does the evidence stack up since Kohn published his book. In a recent blog article Kohn concludes that over the last 25 years the evidence has strengthened showing that rewards frequently kill both interest and excellence.
Kohn says "No controlled study has ever, to the best of my knowledge, found a long-term enhancement in the quality of work as a result of any kind of incentive or pay-for-performance plan."
Dan Pink in his bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates us, didn't hold back in his attack on the incentive plan to motivate employees. He summarised true motivation into three categories:
Autonomy: Our desire to be self-directed. It increases engagement over compliance.
Mastery: The urge to get better skills and be the best you can.
Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.
Salespeople like everyone else in the organisations have powerful intrinsic motivational drivers that if harnessed properly will lead to much greater long term sustained performance than any incentive plan will.
Some organisations have used incentive plans to encourage the adoption of social selling. We have seen in organisations it is more successful when linked to Pink's three innate human traits. Having rewards for tweets, posts and shares, will have a short-term peak of activity, but as soon as the incentive has finished, people will go back to the status quo.
Social Selling can lead to higher motivation: It provides the opportunity for employees to have a degree of autonomy in what they write, their opinions and their voice.It is a new skill to be learned, providing an environment that allows fosters learning, and adoption of new techniques will have a positive impact on engagement.
Lastly, sharing, being part of something that has a sense of purpose is infectious; part of a tribe, a gang, or on a shared mission is something special. Employees, current and future will want to be part of it, partners, customers and prospects will see something significant is going on and become intrinsically connected to your organisation. It is much more potent than any short-term incentive schemes.
The ask of leaders is that this needs personal investment by management, leadership, mentors and peers; combined with a change in thinking about human motivation that higher performance is achievable without the need for carrots or sticks.
The best that carrots — or sticks — can do is change people’s behaviour temporarily. They can never create a lasting commitment to an action or a value, and often they have exactly the opposite effect….contrary to hypothesis.