Category Archives: Motivation

Paying employees to get healthy is a bad idea

I just discovered this brilliant whitepaper on employee wellness. It looks at a new worrying trend which has companies paying their employees to participate in wellness programmes.

This is of course an incredibly bad idea for many reasons, including these:

  • Financial rewards undermine autonomy
  • Employees who aren’t ready or willing to change… won’t
  • Financial incentives aren’t enough to change complex behaviors

It’s really, really time for companies to understand that financial rewards have several serious limitations as a tool to change employee behavior.

Related posts

Well make up your damn mind – do rewards motivate or don’t they?

MotivationFor a long time, rewards were the be-all and end-all of motivation. Everyone knew that the way to encourage people to achieve better results were to reward better results. Bonuses, incentive schemes and pay grades were created to implement this.

Then science starts interfering and pointing out that, actually, rewards only motivate in a very narrow set of circumstances and that there is a huge gap between what science knows and what business does. That’s what Dan Pink talks about in his excellent TED presentation.

Now the effect of rewarding students for performance and good behavior in schools have been tested very rigorously and the results appear in this excellent Time article, according to which some rewards do lead to better performance.

So which is it? Do rewards motivate us to shine or don’t they? This is not only interesting for schools, the findings may apply to businesses as well.

Some background:

A Harvard economist named Roland Fryer Jr. did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities. He used mostly private money to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million and brought in a team of researchers to help him analyze the effects. He got death threats, but he carried on. The results represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom — and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.

The results were surprising:

The experiment ran in four cities: Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York. Each city had its own unique model of incentives, to see which would work best. Some kids were paid for good test scores, others for not fighting with one another. The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don’t always respond the way we expect.

In New York the study resulted in no improvement in test scores. Fryer called the results “as zero as zero gets.” New York was ironically the city where students were rewarded for better test scores.

The program that got the best results was in Dallas:

Schools in Dallas got the simplest scheme and the one targeting the youngest children: every time second-graders read a book and successfully completed a computerized quiz about it, they earned $2. Straightforward — and cheap. The average earning would turn out to be about $14 (for seven books read) per year.

So what might explain the difference? Why did one scheme fail while another got results?

I think the answer might lie in the fact that the NY scheme rewarded results while the Dallas scheme rewarded the process, ie. the actual steps towards the results.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I do think that this carries directly over to the business world. At work it is more motivating to reward effort rather than results because while results are rarely directly under your own control, your efforts are.

In other words, you can work your butt off on a project or a sale and still not get it because of factors completely outside of your influence. Or in the current crisis, you can work hard to meet your sales budget, but there’s no hope in hell you will, because the entire market is down 15%. Conversely, you might be a no-good, talentless slacker but due to a general increase in the market or one windfall client you still reach your goals for the year.

This is what Srikumar S. Rao talked about at our last conference, where he encouraged the audience to focus on the process, not the outcome.

Go read the whole article at – it’s fascinating stuff.

Your take

What do you think? Do rewards motivate you? How and when do you like to be rewarded? Are there any circumstances where rewards tend to demotivate you? Please write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

Related posts

When even Forbes Magazine gets it…

When even a staunch defender of capitalism like Forbes Magazine says that “Money is not the best motivator” I consider the issue settled.

From the article:

There is ample evidence to suggest that money may not be the best way to motivate desirable behavior. In fact, it may be one of the worst ways.

Money is a byproduct, and usually a secondary one at that, for such achievers.

Emotional sources of motivation are more powerful, and they are best conveyed informally in an organization through the respect of peers, the admiration of subordinates, the approval of one’s personal network and community and the like. Money becomes the default motivator because it is measurable, tangible and fungible — and trouble strikes when the prospect of a lot of money becomes the primary goal.

I would of course argue, that the very best motivator is happiness at work :o)

Related posts

Motivation – you’re doing it wrong

Here’s (yet another) great TED presentation – this one is by Dan Pink and is about the mismatch between what science knows and what businesses do to motivate people.

Dan’s point is that rewarding performance mostly doesn’t work and often leads to worse performance.

For tasks that are simple and straight-forward and require no creativity or cognitive skills, extrinsic motivation works fine and promising people rewards for good performance increases performance.

But as soon as a task requires even rudimentary cognitive skills, performance decreases if you offer performance rewards. And the larger the reward, the worse the performance.

Related posts

The top 5 reasons why most team building events are a waste of time

Team building

Here’s how some companies do team building:

Employees [of Californian home security company] Alarm One Inc. were paddled with rival companies’ yard signs as part of a contest that pitted sales teams against each other, according to court documents.

The winners poked fun at the losers, throwing pies at them, feeding them baby food, making them wear diapers and swatting their buttocks.

The good news: The company got paddled in court when an employee sued them and had to cough up 1.7 million USD.

The bad news: A lot of team building events borrow elements from this approach, setting up artificial (and often meaningless) contests pitting coworkers against each other.

This is especially ironic because companies today want their employees to cooperate more, to work well in teams, to share knowledge and to work to achieve success together. That is why it makes absolutely no sense to send them on trainings that are mainly competitive in nature. Even when these events let people work together in smaller teams, competing against other teams, the focus still ends up being on competition, not cooperation.

There’s a simple reason why these events are almost always competitive: Competition = instant passion. Setting up a competition activates a primal urge in many people to win at all costs, making them very focused and active – which looks great to the organizers.

But there’s a huge downside to this – which means that not only are many team building events a huge waste of time, they can be actively harmful to teams.

Here are the top 5 problems with competitive team building events.

1: Competition does not create an experience of success
Yes, someone will win – most people won’t. If the entire focus is on competing and winning, most participants will leave with a sense that “we weren’t good enough.” That’s not really a good feeling to have created in your employees.

2: Competition brings out the worst in people

CEO Hal Rosenbluth was just about to hire an executive with all the right skills, the right personality and the perfect CV. His interviews went swimmingly and he’d said all the right things, but something about him still made Rosenbluth nervous, though he couldn’t put his finger on just what it was.

Rosenbluth’s solution was genius: He invited the applicant to a company softball game, and here the man showed his true colors. He was competitive to the point of being manic. He abused and yelled at both the opponents and his own team. He cursed the referees and kicked up dirt like a major league player.

And he did not get the job.

(From Hal Rosenbluth’s excellent book The Customer Comes Second).

Competing brings out the inner jerk in some people, making them manic and abusive. Some even try cheating in order to win. This is not exactly a great basis for future cooperation – it might be better if people left the event liking each other more than before because they’d seen each other at their best and most likable.

3: People learn less when they’re competing
Studies show that we learn less when we compete and more when we cooperate. Here’s an example from education:

In a comprehensive review of 245 classroom studies that found a significant achievement difference between cooperative and competitive environments, David Johnson and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota reported that 87 percent of the time the advantage went to the cooperative approach.

In visiting classrooms where cooperative learning is used, I like to ask students to describe the experience in their own words. One ten-year-old boy thought a moment and replied, “It’s like you have four brains.” By contrast, a competitor’s single brain often shuts off when given no reason to learn except to triumph over his or her classmates.

– Alfie Kohn (Source)

4: Competition lowers performance
And contrary to what most people think, most of us perform worse when we’re competing. This is especially true for complex tasks that require us to work with and learn from other people.

5: Waste of time
These events focus more on finding and rewarding winners than on making sure that people learn something that might actually be useful at work.

This creates a sense that the events are a waste of time, and employees come to resent them because they keep them from doing real, actual, useful work.

How to do team building that actually builds teams

Here’s what the result of a good team building event should be:

  • A deeper understanding between co-workers
  • Co-workers like each other better than before
  • An experience of having performed well together
  • A feeling that “we’re good at what we do”
  • An increased desire to cooperate and help each other out
  • Specific learnings that can be applied at work
  • And maybe most of all: A sense that the event was “time well spent.”

This would actually be easy to achieve. We’d just have to change the event so that:

  1. The event has common goals for all participants, making people cooperate, not compete
  2. The event rewards those who get good results but also those who help others get good results and those who help make it a nice experience for everyone
  3. You take plenty of time to let participants reflect on how the learnings from the event can be applied in their work

You may not get the same hectic moody you get from those intensely competitive events – but that’s actually a good thing.

What you would get instead is an event that is more fun for more people – and much more useful. That has to be a good thing!

Your take

What’s the best team building event you’ve ever tried? Or the worst? How did it help or hinder your team? What would your ideal team building event look like?

Please write a comment, I’d like to know what you think.

Related posts

A motivational tip that actually works

MotivationTom Johnson heard my podcast about motivation and wrote that:

This podcast from Alexander Kjerulf, called “Why ‘Motivation by Pizza’ Doesn’t Work,” gave me a major epiphany about the reasons behind motivation.

We were on the verge of implementing a member recognition/rewards program in our chapter when Clyde Parson sent me the link. Kjerulf’s podcast was so good I listened to it twice.

In the podcast I argue that there are 4 different kinds of motivation, only one of them works and that many workplaces focus almost exclusively on the other three.

I also talk about how you can foster intrinsic, positive motivation by focusing on fun and results.

Tom then went on to test the method – on his daughter:

I am so totally persuaded by this method that I asked my wife to take down the treasure box charts we keep for our kids at home. In the treasure chest method, if Avery is good by doing her chores and reading books, she gets to advance a square until she eventually reaches a treasure chest square and gets a prize from the dollar store. Seems to work well, but not really. She despises cleaning and it’s always a big struggle.

Today we were doing some cleaning and I made no mention of a reward. The only reward was that I tried to make cleaning fun by cleaning beside her and talking with her. She was Cinderella mopping the floor and loved it. After we finished cleaning one bathroom, she asked if we could clean the other.

First of all, I’m really glad it worked especially when people start trying my tips out on their kids :o) Secondly, thanks for the praise, Tom. Now I’m motivated to do more podcasts :o)


Why “Motivation by Pizza” Doesn’t Work


My store manager implemented an embarrassing (and happily short-lived) safety incentive: Employees caught violating safety procedure were immediately given a two-foot rubber chicken on a string to wear around their necks–in front of customers. To get rid of the chicken, an employee needed to catch another employee behaving “unsafely.”

The practice quickly descended into a game of hot potato, with employees chasing one another around the store in search of the slightest violation to rid themselves of the safety chicken.

Source:’s MyBadBoss contest.

Many people don’t feel motivated at work, and there’s a very simple explanation for this: The motivational techniques used by most managers don’t work.

While few companies use rubber chickens (fortunately), most of the standard motivational tools like promotions, bonuses, employee of the month awards, pep-talks and free-pizza-nights are downright harmful to the drive, energy and commitment of employees. It only leaves them feeling manipulated, cynical and demotivated.

The result: According to one Gallup study 60-80% of workers are not engaged at work. They feel little or no loyalty, passion or motivation on the job. They’re putting in the hours, but they’re not doing a great job and they’re certainly not happy at work!

As the illustration above shows, there are four different kinds of motivation. Only one of them works and unfortunately, many managers focus exclusively on the other three. Kinda silly, huh?

These are the four different kinds of motivation:
Continue reading Why “Motivation by Pizza” Doesn’t Work