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Incentives won’t make work enjoyable


When it comes to productivity, it’s hard to detach it from employee engagement.  I’m sure you’ve felt yourself that feeling of flow (or being in the zone to use a sporting metaphor) and how much more productive you are and how much more enjoyable your work becomes as a result.  It’s literally a beautiful thing.  It is also however a very rare thing.

In the traditional, mechanical mindset of the organization, rewards have been used to try and invoke that sense of heightened productivity.  Give people more of what they want, so the logic goes, and they will do more of the things required to get that.

Except research suggests that isn’t the case.  Not at all.  Indeed, studies have shown that incentivizing us to do something, actually reduces our motivation to do it.  Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, studies have also shown that offering incentives for doing an activity also reduces our enjoyment of the activity, which in turn makes us less likely to want to do it in future.

It all seems counter intuitive, which is probably why the practice of extrinsic rewards remains so common place.  It’s incredibly seductive after all to believe that a bit of sugar here and there is enough to prompt extraordinary performance, to the extent perhaps that eventually you can remove the sugar and high performance will persist.

This is especially difficult in fields that are traditionally thought to be beyond excitement.  It’s easy, people say, for individuals to be intrinsically motivated by jobs they love and that excite them.  Of course.  What about the people doing work that is hard to stir the soul however?  What about them?

A new study might provide a slight glimmer of hope.  It looks specifically at how to motivate sustained engagement in what is otherwise quite a dull task.  Participants were split into four groups.  Group one was offered a badge for successful completion, group two was offered nothing at all for doing the task well, whilst the final two groups were promised extra insights and learning upon completion.  The only difference in these final two groups was that one group was given ‘casually rich’ information, whilst the other was given ‘casually weak’ info.

Rich and weak in this context refers to the volume and depth of information provided.  Rich information is loaded with purpose and meaning.  Weak information is just descriptive type stuff.

So, what were the results I hear you cry.  Well, participants who were given no incentive performed worst of all, alongside those given casually weak information.  Those who were given the incentive of a badge performed twice as well as the laggards (good news for gamification advocates).  The star performers however were those that were given information loaded with purpose and meaning.  They were over 2.5 times as effective as the worst performers.

Rich information full of purpose and meaning therefore produced the best results, even in tasks where one would not readily associate participants with caring much about the purpose or meaning of it.

“If expectations for extrinsic reward are generalized too broadly, insidious degradation of peoples global intrinsic motivation to learn can result. [But] because causally rich rewards inherently capitalize on their intrinsic desire to learn, we suggest that they may be less likely to have this detrimental effect on a peoples overall intrinsic motivation”, the paper says.

So, there you have it.  If you want great performance and great engagement, you better get working on purposeful feedback.

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