Book Review: Punished by Rewards

“Punished By Rewards” by Alfie Kohn

For many years I have been a believer in rewards. Rewards for kids for doing their household chores. Rewards for students that perform in the classroom. Rewards for employees doing their jobs. I always believed that you “get what you reward”.

Until now…”Punished by Rewards”, written by Alfie Kohn, has given me a very different perspective on the use of rewards. In short, they fail to work the majority of the time. In fact, not only do rewards fail to work but they can often times have a negative effect on people’s behavior and performance.

This book was first written in 1993. It’s findings are based on hundreds of studies done around the world. The author, Alfie Kohn, has persuaded countless numbers of parents, teachers, and business executives that attempts to manipulate people with incentives may work in the short run, but they ultimately fail long-term and can do lasting harm. Likewise, punishments can have the same destructive impact.

Here are just a few of the key takeways from “Punished by Rewards”

  • “Rewards,, like punishments, are very effective at producing compliance.” Is that what you want from your employees? Your students? Your children?
  • “Rewards usually improves performance only at extremely simple – indeed, mindless – tasks, and even then they improve only quantitative performance.” How many of your employees are doing “mindless” tasks?
  • “Most studies have found that unexpected rewards are much less destructive than the rewards people are told about beforehand and are deliberately trying to obtain.”
  • “Do rewards motivate? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.”
  • “Rewards are usually experienced as controlling, and we tend to recoil from situations where our autonomy has been diminished.”
  • “Extrinsic motivators in the workplace are not only ineffective but often positively counterproductive. Any approach that offers a reward for better performance is destined to be ineffective.”

This book has given me a very different perspective on human motivation. Intrinsic motivation is far more important than extrinsic motivation. Business leaders must work hard to eliminate the de-motivators in the workplace such as compensation (pay is never a motivator), work conditions, and company culture.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a small business executive; you will be both enlightened and horrified by this book. I strongly recommend it for all.