Rewards May Actually Hurt Performance

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Rewards May Actually Hurt Performance

A study by Amy Wrzesniewski  and Barry Schwartz found that when instrumental motivation is combined with internal motivation, it can work against good performance. Someone may go to West Point because she wants to become a good leader (an internal motivation) and/or she wants to get a good job later in life (that is an instrumental motivator).

Commonsense might suggest that having two goals would be better than one. This research suggests otherwise. “We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers.” And, they found that these men and women stayed in the service longer and received more early recommendations for promotion than those who didn’t have strong internal motives.  “Unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.”  (New York Times 7/4/14)

Those with strong internal and instrumental motives performed worse on every measure compared to cadets with strong internal and weak instrumental motives.

I think the study is worth paying attention to. Too often, organizations try to encourage good performance by offering rewards. If I read the study results correctly, rewards could actually undermine people who were intrinsically motivated to do good work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.