Beware of rewards!

Rewarding employees for their contributions to your idea management system is a very tricky game. Often companies dive into it without thinking first about the true motivations for their employees, and end up with average or worse results. I recently read about a fascinating study that highlights this issue well. Allow me to recite:

Edward Deci is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, and director of its human motivation program. In 1969 he ran an experiment using the Soma puzzle cube, a simple puzzle containing seven pieces, which players can assemble into millions of different combinations.

Deci divided participants into Group A (an experimental group), and Group B (a control group). Three sessions were held over three consecutive days. Each participant entered a room, where the Soma puzzle sat on the table, with drawings of three puzzle configurations. Also on the table were copies of newspapers and magazines. Deci sat at the other end of the table, and explained the instructions, and timed the exercise.

In session one, members of both groups had to complete the puzzle configurations. In session two they did the same with new puzzle configurations, but this time Group A was told they would be paid a few dollars for each configuration that they successfully solved. Group B got new puzzles, but there was no mention of rewards. In session three, both groups had new puzzles, and neither had any compensation.

Midway through the second day, after each participant had completed two of the puzzles, Deci halted things. He said he was going to get them some more puzzles, and would be back in a little while. On the way out he said "I'll be gone a while, do whatever you like while I'm gone." He actually walked into the next room, which had a one-way window, and sat and watched for eight minutes. Did they read the newspapers, day dream a little, go to sleep?

On the first day there wasn't much difference between Groups A and B. Both continued playing with the puzzles, on average for four minutes. Session two elicited similar results, except Group A this time spent on average of five minutes playing with the puzzles. Makes sense, right? A little cash incentive to boost their motivation - reward me and I'll do more work.

But on the third day, something different happened.

Deci told participants in Group A that there was no more money for completed puzzles this time, and it would be unpaid. In the eight-minute period, Group B participants actually played even longer with the puzzles than the previous session. Group A, however, now spent significantly less time playing with the puzzles, the lowest time of all six sessions.

The enjoyment of the first session of puzzle fixing was continued in Group B through to the third session - it even increased; in Group A, the enjoyment factor decreased rapidly after session two.

Deci commented, "When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity." Rewards are great for a short-term incentive, but after a while, they not only become ineffective, they can actually damage the long-term motivation for the task.

If you're thinking of using rewards in your idea management system, one thing is clear: You can never, ever, take them out. But also, first think about the inherent challenges that will motivate employees. Asking employees to solve your biggest and hardest problems taps straight into their natural desire to explore, invent and produce.

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