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Bonus Busting

Incentive programs used by three out of four American corporations to spur on their employees do not and cannot succeed. What employers should do instead.

From the time the first lollipop was stuck in our mouths to beget quiet, it seems, we've been trained to perform in exchange for goodies. Later, gold stars and good grades took up the behaviorist cause. Small wonder that three of four American corporations rely on some sort of incentive program to spur on their employees.

Trouble is, such incentives not only don't succeed, they cannot succeed, contends Alfie Kohn in Punished By Rewards (Houghton Mifflin; 1993). "People aren't naturally inclined to require T-shirts and trips to Hawaii in order to do their jobs," says Kohn. Actually, such incentives only wind up stifling our intrinsic interest and curiosity.

Rewards and punishments are commonly seen as the only two possibilities for motivation, but they're really two sides of the same coin. And, according to Kohn, that coin doesn't buy very much. Rewards produce only a temporary upswing in productivity; they are strikingly ineffective at inducing lasting changes in attitudes or behavior.

In a study involving a group of welders at a Midwestern manufacturing company, an incentive system that had been in effect for years was eliminated at the request of the union. Result? Productivity dropped--at first. But after the initial slump, production eventually reached a level as high or higher than it had been before.

The problem with prizes?

o They're manipulative, contingent upon someone else's idea of success, and controlling. Workers who don't get the rewards they've been hoping for feel punished.

o They deter risk-taking and creativity: Employees stick to easy tasks that allow them to achieve clear-cut goals.

o They encourage competition, with individuals scrambling for "bonus points" at the expense of cooperation.

o They make work seem distasteful, something to be done only for the money rather than the intrinsic motivation of a feeling of accomplishment, fulfillment, and satisfaction for a job well done.

So if rewards don't work, what does? Employers should pay workers well and fairly to begin with, says Kohn. Then they should do everything they can to help them forget about money.

"If we want people to do good work, we have to give them good work to do. There are ways of organizing jobs to make them more palatable and even challenging."

A sense of collaboration is also very important--an atmosphere in which teams of workers can exchange ideas freely. So is giving people as much latitude as possible about how they're going to do their jobs. It promotes a sense of autonomy and contentment in their work.

Don't rewards motivate people at all? "Absolutely," says Kohn. "They motivate people to get rewards."