Leadership Nudge® 410 – Book Review: Punished by Rewards admin January 4, 2023

Leadership Nudge® 410 – Book Review: Punished by Rewards

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn is a classic for leaders. Kohn discusses how extrinsic motivation for work creates unwanted behaviors and he offers practical ways to create intrinsic motivation. Here’s David with more.

This book, Punished by Rewards (by Alfie Kohn), is a classic for leaders, HR leaders and anyone helping build organizations where humans can be at their best. It makes the case that all rewards are basically manipulation. And since they’re manipulation, they feel icky. And they backfire. And we don’t want to use them. 

It resonated strongly with me when I read it two decades ago, it’s been around for a while. It’s still . . . it’s a classic. And I recommend it to anybody. I immediately “got it” when he started talking about these manipulations, because this is how I would feel when people would say,”Oh, you know, we want you to do this.” So it’s like dangling carrots.  

The problem with these “strategies” is that we externalize the reward of the good feelings, we appropriate them onto us. We don’t let the task itself and the innate goodness of the work provide the reward. Once we externalize those good feelings and we make the motivation extrinsic, we see a lot of behavior. First of all, it goes back to the way it was as soon as we remove the rewards. It transactionalizes the work, so we’re not in it for the passion or the good work, we’re in it to get the reward.  

And we see that the studies show that people are less creative, less innovative, less problem solving, less engaged, less mentally committed, they’re less resilient, when they get to a roadblock in the work, they’re more likely to stop when we’ve created external or extrinsic motivators for the work as opposed to letting the work be intrinsic.  

It’s a pretty quick read. He’s also got some ideas for how to . . . what you need to do to mitigate it. Give people as much control as possible over the work, for example. But I recommend the book. 

I’m David Marquet. That’s your Leadership Nudge Book Review.