A group of young boys regularly stopped by an old man’s house on their way home from school. Whenever the old man was out in the yard, they would insult him mercilessly. One day, after enduring another round of jeers about how ugly and old and stupid he was, the old man came up with an idea. He called out to the boys and met them at the sidewalk.
“Boys, this might surprise you, but I find your jokes at my expense quite funny. In fact, for anyone who comes back tomorrow and insults me, I’ll pay one dollar!”
The boys were surprised but excited about the prospect of making a dollar. They showed up early the next day and insulted the old man loudly until he came over and gave them their dollar.
“That was great, boys, but I’m afraid I’ll only be able to offer you a quarter for coming by tomorrow.”
A quarter wasn’t a dollar, but it was still enough to impress the young boys. Faithfully, they came back the next day and dutifully delivered their insults until the old man came over and gave them their quarter.
“Ah, boys, those were the best yet! Unfortunately, all I can reward you with tomorrow is a penny for your efforts.”
“What? A stinkin’ penny! Forget it!” And the boys never came back again.
This story is funny, but it also teaches an important lesson about human nature. When we are rewarded for doing something, we often lose the enjoyment that the task originally brought just for doing it. It’s almost as if we make the decision that “if they have to bribe me to do this, it must not be worth doing.” In psychology terms, extrinsic rewards (incentives, bonuses, awards, gifts, accolades…) kill intrinsic motivation (enjoyment of the task for its own sake).
In other words, when we say, “do this and you’ll get that,” our focus is shifted off the “this” (the task) and to the “that” (the reward). It’s a counter-intuitive bait and switch. The purpose of the reward is to get better performance, right? But instead, what often happens is that performers see the task as an obstacle to the reward. Before long, they are taking the quickest route to completion in order to claim their prize. Unfortunately, the quickest route is rarely the highest quality route.
Could it be that some of our reward systems are sabotaging the improved results they are intended to create? Don’t be so quick to offer incentives. Some work is worth doing in and of itself. Maybe all you need to do is help the performer see and understand the rewards that are already there.