Rewards are a great way to Punish people


Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished by Rewards, explains to us that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin; they are not opposites at all, and in fact have a strong kinship between them. Another author—Kurt Lewin—in his book “A dynamic Theory of Personality“, goes even further. He says that rewards and punishments are both used when we want to produce in others “a type of behavior which the nature-filled forces of the moment will not produce.”

The problem with this approach, when applied over the long term, is that it relies on us raising the stakes higher and higher to produce the results we seek; we must dish out greater threats or rewards in order to get people to do what we desire.

Alfie Kohn explains that “punishment and reward proceed from basically the same psychological model, one that conceives of motivation as nothing more than the manipulation of behavior.” If we analyze the objective inherent in saying “Do this and you’ll get that,” or of someone who says, “Do this or here’s what will happen to you,” we see that in reality, those who say such things are manipulating the behavior of others in order to get what they want. What “effective” rewards and punishments will do is to control people’s behavior, by describing what will be given to them if they comply— or be done to them if they don’t comply.

One of the biggest reasons that we can, rather ironically, consider rewards a great way to punish people is due to the fact that, with rewards, we can actually control people’s behaviors. But this facet of the situation is not the only problem—there is another, more simple and straightforward problem: What happens to the person who is expecting to get a reward, and for some reason is not able to achieve what was necessary in order to get that reward? When he or she cannot meet the necessary criteria?

How many of us can remember a situation where we or our colleagues were expecting a bonus, for example, and that bonus never came? Do you remember how you felt punished because of that? When you worked hard to get that money, but for reasons outside of your control, you were not able to get it, despite doing your best? I am sure at that point your only thought was: “Why I am not getting my bonus? What did I do wrong?” Punishment was the only thing that you felt.

In my humble opinion, this can seem like the worst form of punishment (who really feels that demoralized when unable to do something they were outright bullied into doing? Being disappointed over a loss of reward is much harder). The bigger the reward that is lost, the worse you feel about yourself.

This blog post is part of my new book that I am writing: Get Rid of Performance Reviews, if you are interested in the topic please subscribe as a Beta Reader and receive the 1st part for free right HERE.

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    • Luis
    • May 5, 2016

    I am struggling with these blogs of yours Luis about rewards, I kind of agree with some of the points you made. However I think that you might complete this with alternatives to rewards. My main concern is, how do you make feel your people (team) appreciated when they do well, when they go the extra mile? I have seen cases where people put a lot of effort to hit their goals, and they don’t receive any recognition, and they start to ask themselves if doing so it is worth it. This may be a bigger problem in countries where salaries are low, and only having a nice work environment, it is not enough because their regular salary is acceptable but it is not exciting…. I don’t know, maybe I can elaborate this better and write you again. Now I am only trying to digest this information.

    • Reply

      Write me an email and we can have a discussion… But for sure giving money as reward is stupid :) at least if the point is to keep them motivated…

  3. Reply

    But the bottom line seems to be that we now have a better idea why rewards work better than punishment with pre-adolescent children. So if it is an explanation you need for why you should reward good behavior more than punish bad behavior, at least with pre-adolescent children, now you have one. The task that still remains, of course, is regulating one’s own irritability, frustration and thus behavior in the face of annoying child behavior so that we can ignore it.

    • Jessica rabel
    • July 19, 2014

    Love the site.I am sure the book ”Get Rid Of Performance Appraisals” is a lovely and great book.Because I need to improve my business model and I need to be more successful in my business the book as well.

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