Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work


It is difficult to overstate the extent to which most managers and the people who advise them believe in the redemptive power of rewards. But more striking is the rarely examined belief that people will do a better job if they have been promised some sort of incentive. According to numerous studies in laboratories, workplaces, classrooms, and other settings, rewards typically undermine the very processes they are intended to enhance. The findings suggest that the failure of a given incentive program is due less to a glitch in that program than to the inadequacy of the psychological assumptions that ground all such plans. Research suggests that, by and large, rewards succeed at securing one thing only: temporary compliance. Kohn explains why rewards fail in a six-point framework: rewards do not motivate; they punish; they rupture relationships; they ignore reasons; they discourage risk taking; and finally, they undermine interest. Any manager thinking about a new incentive program--or attached to an old one--would do well to consider Kohn's argument. According to Kohn, incentives (or bribes) simply can't work in the workplace.
Subjects: Article Summaries, Organizational Behavior
Source: Alfie Kohn, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1993
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