How Rewards Can Demotivate

Not all rewards are made equal. Some actually destroy your motivation.

“People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”
— Johnmarshall Reeve

Work is what we must do. Play is what we want to do.

Rewards are the prizes we win at work and play. They fall into two general categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic Rewards are typically received at work for a job well done. They are separate from the activity of work and bestowed upon you by someone else. They are often big and splashy to denote the significance of your contribution:

  • An increase in pay

  • A vacation or trip

  • A trophy or an award

Intrinsic Rewards are mostly inherent in play or activities you enjoy. They are often small but meaningful. People may recognize them, but the satisfaction you feel is already inherent in the activity itself and the way it makes you feel:

  • Simply enjoying what you are doing

  • Learning something of interest

  • An act of altruism

Extrinsic rewards tend to be material and rooted in compliance. They can motivate the completion of uninteresting or repetitive tasks. Intrinsic rewards tend to be mental and rooted in meaning. The act itself is motivation.

We get into trouble when using extrinsic rewards to recognize work that is already meaningful. The consequences are counterintuitive at first: narrowed focus, stunted creativity, unethical behavior and short-term thinking.

When play is associated with a grade, money or other extrinsic rewards, it tends to become work. The joy in the activity is destroyed as the reward becomes the focus.

If you want to reward someone for an activity they already find meaningful, use small gestures in the moment to acknowledge their achievement. If you still want to give extrinsic rewards, do it unexpectedly with no future guarantee.

Maximize motivation. Don’t destroy it unintentionally.

Think about times in the past when you were promised an extrinsic reward for completing a task or achieving a goal set by someone else.

Were you motivated by the activity or the reward?

If you were already motivated by the activity itself, did a focus on the reward begin to crowd out your enjoyment?