Rethinking the Carrot and Stick

Follow us on LinkedIn for our latest data and tips!

Stanford University researcher, Mark Lepper, and his team conducted a significant research study in the early 1970s, concerned with the impact of extrinsic rewards on performance.  Specifically, Lepper was interested in whether prizes influence behavior in young children.

A brand-new activity was introduced to the children at a nursery. The teachers issued the children with creamy white artist’s drawing paper and brand-new marker pens; the children were given time to draw with these novel materials. They had never done drawings with marker pens before. Predictably, the children took to the activity with relish. But after exactly one hour, the materials were whisked away to the disappointment of the children.

Several days later, one of the researchers returned to the class and randomly divided the class into two groups to continue the new drawing activity. One group of children were taken to another room. They were given the opportunity to continue their drawings, just as they had done before. After an hour, the researcher thanked the children in this group and took away the art material and their drawings.

The second group of children was offered a prize for drawing their pictures. It was explained to this group that some special prizes would be given to the children who draw good pictures. The children took to their task, anticipating they might receive a prize for their picture. This control group was given the same amount of time (one hour) as the other group to complete their artwork.  At the end of the session, the researcher thanked the children as he’d done with the other group. But this time, he handed out a prize to each child in the control group.

One week later the researchers returned to the classroom. The afternoon period consisted of ‘free time;’ the children could choose what they wanted to do with their time. The special paper and marker pens were placed on the tables and easily accessible for the children. However, the children had other options too. They could go outside and run around on the playground. They could play with the toys in the classroom. Or they could return to the drawing activity. The researchers observed the time the children spent on their chosen activities. To what extent would the prizes given to the children in the control group affect their choices and behavior? The researchers assumed that the children in the control group, who had received prizes, would spend more time on the drawing activity.

But that didn’t happen!

The result was one the researchers didn’t foresee. Their findings challenged conventional wisdom about parenting and education. The children who received the extrinsic rewards for their artwork chose to spend less time drawing than those who weren’t rewarded. Conversely, the children who didn’t receive a prize chose to spend more of their discretionary time on the drawing activity. The children who were rewarded seemed reluctant to continue with the activity without the promise of a further reward. The initial reward paradoxically reduced the children’s motivation rather than increased it.

But what was even more surprising is this: The artwork of all the children was evaluated by a group of independent judges with no knowledge of the experiment. The result was that the pictures drawn by the children who were rewarded were evaluated as less competent than the pictures drawn by the unrewarded group.

So, in summary: The children who received an extrinsic reward spent less time drawing when given a choice and when they were rewarded, they put in less effort too.[1]

Extrinsic rewards are limiting in promoting higher levels of performance. In some cases, they’re even demotivating. Most people want more from their work than promises of a bonus. Work can offer more than a source of subsistence. For many, it is a vehicle for personal growth, wellbeing, cultivating a sense of belonging, and fulfilling purpose and direction in one’s life.

When incentives are used to improve performance, it can unintendedly take the employee’s attention off the work the reward is designed to enhance. The promise of a bonus shifts the employee’s focus from the task to the prize.  The work, in other words, becomes the means to the outcome—a reward. Extrinsic rewards can reduce—not increase—performance! With a bonus top-of-mind, it’s common for the employee to cut corners, do whatever it takes, or even cheat, to get their hands on the prize. As well intended as extrinsic rewards are—and as effective as they can sometimes be—they can back-fire too.

Using monetary incentives to induce greater performance is, however, part of the DNA of the work-setting. Workers were once viewed—and perhaps still are in many ways—as small cogs in a large factory machine.  Bonus pay is still used to entice workers to perform their work in a prescribed way, to a time-limit. Cogs in a factory machine perform a relatively narrow range of activity. Work conformity was—and still is—the name of the game. The carrot and stick are the levers to reinforce orthodox work practices. We have continued these motivational strategies for the past century, believing it was the answer to extracting higher performance. We still endeavor to motivate employees with a suite of inducements and apply sanctions when predetermined behavior is not met. Work has transformed. But the way we kindle performance hasn’t fundamentally changed.

[1] Yeung, R. (2011). I is for influence: The new science of persuasion. London: Macmillan.