Motivating Others Using Rewards (The Smart Way)

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Reward the Smart Way!

As brain science continues to evolve and advance our understanding of the brain, we are presented with new insights that challenge our current and previous ideologies of dealing with the human psyche – say for example, how we manage people, how we remove tension and resolve conflicts, how we encourage and motivate others (and ourselves), or how we can create the most positive and enlightening environments to maximize happiness, health, creativity, and overall life satisfaction – and all this, tailored with the brain in mind.

One theme that has been rising in popularity is our current understanding of how we effectively reward or don’t reward individuals to increase motivation, productivity, and overall success – whether at home, school, or in the workplace. If you are a manager, business owner, parent, older sibling, or simply a pet owner, then this article is for you.

Let me ask you a question.

If we promise 6-year-old Tommy $10 to read three books, how many books do you think he’ll read? You got it, just three!  Why?

Once the reward has been administered there is no incentive to continue.  This is how offering extrinsic rewards can sometimes lead to less desirable results!  When we offer a reward, we acknowledge that the task is undesirable – why would we need a reward to do something desirable?

In this case, we encouraged a negative association: reading is a task worthy of a reward.  This demeans the value of reading for the sake of reading in itself, and most likely killed the early chances of inspiring little Tommy to a life-long passion for reading and learning!

Let me ask you a different question.

In the workplace, if you offer a cash reward for the first person to reach 100 sales… how much effort do you think people will exert once the reward has been handed out?  You may see a short-term spike, but once that reward has been delivered, it will plummet back to it’s original level and possibly lower.

When it comes to motivating others, we don’t want sporadic flames that quickly burn out.  No, we want a forest fire in the middle of the Arizona Desert; easily kindled with an abundant supply of fuel!

Rewards tend to be highly combustible and we tend to burn through them quickly.  Let’s talk about why.


Pitfalls to the Current Reward Systems

There are numerous pitfalls within typical reward systems, but for today we’ll just discuss my two favorites.

Firstly, rewards are addictive. Before long, the reward is no longer proper stimulus and starts to feel like the status quo and the reward needs to be one-upped. To maintain the same level of output we need to continuously increase the reward with very little chance of increasing the returns.

This is a not a pretty cycle as the company, leaders, or parents are losing this battle as the recipient is increasingly unsatisfied over time.

Secondly, The old method of motivating revolved around carrots and sticks and usually included ‘if-then’ scenarios – if you do this, then you get this. It follows the concepts behind 1) If you reward something, you get more of the behavior you want, and 2) if you punish something, you get less of the behavior you want.

Simple right? Sure is, that is, if you’re a Golden Retriever – and this is how it’s been for hundreds of years, and I’ll tell you why… because it worked!  But not anymore… what changed?

Factories, workshops, and assembly-line production are no longer our dominant industries.  Most of us are not confined to one or two job functions – Okay Jim, you put the bolt on, I’ll tighten it, and then Roy will walk it over to Bill who will… and so it goes. Today, most work environments are becoming more cognitively demanding where ideas, creativity, and uniqueness are highly valued… and required!

Studies have shown that performance-based incentives are only effective when the tasks require purely mechanical skills – bonuses worked as expected; the higher the pay the higher performance.  BUT, when the task called for even ‘rudimentary’ cognitive skills, the larger the incentive the poorer the performance!

In scenarios where cognitive skills were required, external rewards tended to:

  • Extinguish intrinsic motivation
  • Diminish Performance
  • Crush Creativity
  • Crowd out good behavior
  • Encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  • Foster short-term thinking

Crazy isn’t it?  So what are we to do?

Use Rewards the Smart Way

We need to be aware of the message we are sending when rewards are administered.  Think about it: once a reward has been established it is very difficult to get someone to continue doing the task without a reward.  There is no going back!

The inspiration for this article came from the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (affiliate link), and in the books Daniel Pink offers several suggestions…

  • Extrinsic motivation is best used for short-term, measurable tasks.  Rewards for routine tasks can stimulate productivity, but a task that requires even a little ‘cognitive skill’ can diminish performance. Using If/Then rewarding is OKAY here.
  • BEWARE: Offer to reward too little and they will not accept, offer a reward they find appealing and you find yourself in a dangerous loop. Once a reward has been established, it is difficult to get someone to continue the task without a reward.
  • When giving a reward for something, do it randomly and after the task has been completed – and do it because the quality of work was top-notch or they worked diligently on it, not only because they completed it. This way, we encourage the behavior and not the task itself.
  • Use non-tangible rewards – appreciation and feedback.  Give specific responses… don’t say ‘good work’, instead use ‘great job keeping the client’s happy’, or ‘you handled the project with professionalism and motivation, and the [blank] was a big success’.
  • For creative, right-brained projects… stay away from ‘if-then’ rewards and try the ‘now that’ rewards.  Don’t say, ‘If you’re presentation is the best, then you will get…’ but instead use, ‘Now that this presentation has been developed so wonderfully, that I think you deserve…’


Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation can get people to do what you want and work harder, but is usually sporadic and short lived and needs to be increased to maintain the same level of performance.  People have their eyes on the prize, not the process itself.

Rewards = Short-Term Performance Booster (For Mechanical Tasks)

Intrinsic Motivation one feels with their entire body. Our emotions are activated and guide us naturally into action because we want to. And THIS will be the topic of next week’s article! Stay tuned!

“We should focus our efforts on creating environments for our innate psychological needs to flourish.” ~Daniel Pink


What do you think?  I love being rewarded just as much as the next guy, and never thought it was impacting me in any negative way.  Yet, the numerous studies I’ve read and the evidence I’ve seen prove otherwise.  Then again, I did have my eye on the prize and not much else.  Do you agree or disagree?


Last note: I highly recommend watching this amazing animated video presentation of Daniel Pink’s speech about motivation:

Picture Credit: RSAnimate

This post was written by

Greg has written 69 articles on Student of Me.

Greg is the creator and primary writer for Student of Me. He probably spends way too much time on the computer writing, researching, programming, and working on his photography. He loves escaping from screen-time to travel, ride his motorcycle, experience the outdoors and spend time with loved ones. You can contact him at greg (at)!

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5 thoughts on “Motivating Others Using Rewards (The Smart Way)”

  1. Steven says:

    Hey Greg, really great thoughts on motivation. As you mention, extrinsic rewards can be addictive. We often need to constantly up our supply in order to keep going and repeating the behavior. But intrinsic motivation is driven by our passion and core values. The action becomes rewarding in and of itself. We write because we like to write, not because we like to make money while we write or see our # of blog posts increase (although those may be nice secondary benefits too).

  2. Steven says:

    You’re absolutely right Greg. External rewards only work in-so-far as we are willing to keep providing the reward (and, presumably, increase it until the laws of diminishing returns sets in). The other drawback, as you mention, is that external rewards (while great with simple tasks/chores) tend to inhibit innovative thinking.

    I love that video by Pink!

    1. Greg Yung says:

      Thanks Steven, your thoughts always appreciated! (And is someone you should check out if you haven’t visited his site before.)

      And yes, I’m a new Pink and RSAnimate fan!

      – Greg

  3. Tiger says:

    Keep these articles coming as they’ve opened many new doors for me.

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