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Child's Play

A popular leadership adage says, "What gets rewarded gets done." But, as Stanford psychologists Mark Lepper and David Green discovered, it doesn't get done for long.

In their now-famous experiment that was first reported in the 1970s, Lepper and Green studied the effect that extrinsic rewards have in motivating young children. The researchers observed three and four-year-old preschoolers in their classroom over the course of several days, noting those children who spent their play periods drawing. Then they divided the young artists into three groups for an experiment.

Lepper and Green showed children in the first group a special certificate, complete with a red ribbon and gold seal. They asked those youngsters whether they would like to draw and promised a certificate to each child who agreed. In other words, the children in this group expected a reward for performing an activity they usually did for fun.

The investigators asked children in the second group if they wanted to draw, without mentioning the certificate. Those who did draw were surprised with a certificate when they finished. Put another way, drawers in the second group received a reward that they were not expecting.

Finally, Lepper and Green simply asked the third group of children if they wanted to draw. There was no mention of a certificate, and none were given.

The researchers returned a few weeks later and again observed the children during their play periods. Those children that had been surprised with a certificate, as well as those who did not receive one, drew as much and as enthusiastically as they had before the experiment. However, children from the group that drew with the expectation of receiving a certificate now showed much less interest in drawing than before. In fact, the amount of time they spent drawing fell by half.

What happened?

The expectation of an award had turned a play activity into work. Clearly the award was not to blame: children who the researchers surprised with certificates maintained their interest in drawing. Instead, it was the contingent nature of the award that turned children off to drawing. Drawing was no longer play; it was an obligation.

Lepper and Green replicated their results in numerous follow-up experiments, and other researchers found the same tendencies in adults. Thanks to their efforts, we know that extrinsic rewards destroy our intrinsic motivation. Because they lead us to perceive a loss of personal autonomy, contingent rewards strip the fun out of a task. And without the fun, the task is just work.

Lepper and Green's classic research is referenced often in literature on motivation and external reinforcement. Their findings should convince leaders of the folly in trying to motivate employees with extrinsic rewards. Yet most companies continue to believe that extrinsic rewards such as cash bonuses, stock options, employee-of-the-month awards, or other special prizes are the best way to motivate their workers. But just as a flashy certificate inspires preschoolers to take part in an immediate task, extrinsic rewards do not keep employees motivated for the long run. For that, you need to reward them with good leadership.
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Very appropriate to the bankers and their expected bonuses, despite not doing anything bonus-worthy.

I'd have to disagree with heroworkshop if he or she is referring to the AIG executives. They were paid nothing and promised a bonus once the company had money to pay them. However, I generously agree with you about just about every other bonus scandal of the past year.

Great post. I first read of this experiment in Dan Pink's Drive and have really been rethinking the effective of incentives ever since. Even in sales. It's possible to get salespeople who are in it for love of the product but, if you incentivize sales, do they love it less. That'd be a great study.

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