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Reading for Marbles; The Danger of Extrinsic Motivators

by Beth on May 26th, 2010

I his latest book, Drive, Daniel Pink suggests that trying to motivate people with external rewards like money is a mistake.  His argument is based on years of scientific research that shows when people are given rewards for doing something that they started doing because they enjoyed it, they will stop doing it when the reward is removed.  That is, giving people external rewards for doing something can reduce their internal motivation.  They now do it only to get the reward.
This is exactly what happened the other day to a friend of mine’s daughter. Our children’s school has a reading program that rewards kids with a marble for every book they read.  They put their marbles in a jar and every week a marble is drawn and that person gets a prize.  School was almost out, so the library ended the program for the year.  My friend took her daughter, who was the top reader in her Kindergarten class this year, to the library to get another book.  When her daughter saw that the bin with marbles was gone she asked where they were and was told the program had ended.  She then turned to her mom and said “Forget it, I don’t want a book if there are no more marbles.”

It works the same way with adults.  One study found that fewer people donate blood when they are paid to do so.  People tend to donate blood because they see it as an altruistic act; they are doing something good.  If you pay them for donating blood it becomes a business transaction, not a good deed.  Monetary incentives at work do not improve the quality of performance and they actually hurt creativity.  In a recent article Pink tells the story of two companies that eliminated commissions for their salespeople and saw sales increase as a result.

Companies need to rethink the way they motivate their people, keeping in mind the danger of extrinsic motivators.  Yes, they do need to pay employees enough so that money isn’t an issue.  But beyond that people are motivated by interesting, challenging work.  They want freedom to make decisions about how to accomplish their goals and they want to feel like they are making a difference.

Are you intrinsically motivated?  Do you do what you do because you enjoy it or do you do it to get more marbles?  What about your employees?  Do they have the opportunity to use their strengths at work, to try new things, and to make a valuable contribution?  Or do you think I’m crazy?

  1. Cody permalink

    I am a teacher at an alternative charter school for students who have dropped out. I am thinking of using this article in class tomorrow and am interested in their responses.

    If it is alright I would like to use this in class and possibly edit for length/reading level.

  2. Beth permalink

    Hi Cody,

    I think it would be great if you use this article in your class! You are welcome to edit it in any way you see fit. And thank you for all you are doing for your students.

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