Friday Fave: Science Confirms It – People Are Not Pets

Finally – it’s official!! Something I’ve been saying since last century: “Training is for dogs and babies..”

This week’s article was published in the New York Times late last year, but only appeared in my newsfeeds recently. The study might confirm (for many people) what some will say is obvious. Others, however, will be taken aback that the traditional reward and motivation systems we’ve used for decades in organisations, doesn’t actually work!

“…the discovery that when we are rewarded for doing something, we tend to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward.”

In my time as a university lecturer, this behaviour was very apparent (and well studied) – students pay attention to topics that will be assessed – either in an exam or assignment. Any additional material (no matter how interesting) will most likely be ignored as irrelevant to the subject.

“…rewards frequently kill both interest and excellence…”

Question: so why are we still rewarding people against performance – for doing something? Something they’re already (technically) being rewarded for doing (paid).

The article follows recent research and the findings are disturbing. In fact, most of our commonly applied recognition systems are having the opposite effect! But – here’s the key point:

“…By now it should be clear that the trouble doesn’t lie with the type of reward, the schedule on which it’s presented, or any other detail of how it’s done. The problem is the outdated theory of motivation underlying the whole idea of treating people like pets — that is, saying: Do this, and you’ll get that.”

Now – this is huge…!! Gamification theories in our workplace systems frequently rely on theories that require action (do this) and get points (rewards). This can also explain why these strategies experience a drop in activity after a period of time. We get bored and the motivation stimuli (money, movie tickets etc) wears off.

But this is a solution – and wait for it – it’s rather obvious:

“…Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort and courage.”

So I encourage you to spend time exploring the experience of people you work with – with the intention to more deeply understand – before you design this year’s performance management and reward programs.


This post is part of a weekly Friday Faves series contributed by the team at Ripple Effect Group. Read the entire series and collections from other team members here.