Are Extrinsic Rewards Dangerous?
I was reading through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers recently and I came across a chapter where he lists our workplace motivations as:
I was reminded Daniel Pink’s stance on the topic in his book Drive. Pink lists our workplace motivations as:
What I’d like to do is compare these two, evaluate the evidence cited by Pink, and then explain what this means for Gamification.
Autonomy – both Pink and Gladwell use the same word, so itâ€™s pretty clear they agree here. All they mean by “autonomy” is the freedom to make choices on your own. Work with no autonomy is pretty brainless; you are either doing the same thing the same way over and over or you are being micromanaged all the way through a more complex task.
Complexity/Mastery – when Gladwell uses “complexity” I think he is implying that work be mentally challenging and this interpretation certainly aligns with Pink’s “mastery”. If something can be mastered, this implies that it is difficult for novices and therefore is inherently complex. Nobody masters the art of postage-stamping envelopes or removing potatoes from a fryer.
The third bullet is where the two writers diverge. Gladwell uses the rather broad term “reward” while Pink uses “purpose”. Reward implies getting something back for your effort, but really doesn’t commit to whether that is money, recognition, relief from boredom or just a sense of pride in a job well done. Purpose, on the other hand, is rather vague; purpose implies a sense of greater objectives – perhaps fulfilling some betterment of self or society.
When looking at a typical job, the kind that qualifies someone as employed, reward seems much more critical than purpose; there are very few people who will do a nine to five without monetary compensation. But when looking at volunteer and charity work, the two are reversed; purpose is critical but reward is not.
I’ve already mentioned that “reward” is a broad term and, I think it’s actually broad enough to encompass purpose. After all, a sense of purpose feels rewarding. So, the real deciding factor between which word to use, reward or purpose, comes down to whether we’re talking specifically about volunteerism or not. The fact that Pink’s other bullets are autonomy and mastery implies that, even from his perspective, the subject at hand is not volunteerism, where very often people do menial labor that lacks both autonomy and mastery. Pink is talking about occupational work, just like Gladwell and, in this sense, I think Pink’s list is actually a little overly optimistic, while Gladwell’s is sufficiently broad.
If we accept that purpose is an incomplete explanation of workplace motivation, this leaves us with reward. But as I said, reward is a broad word and, for it to be useful, we’ll have break it down into specifics.
The universal ‘first step’ to understanding rewards is to break them down into two groups:
It turns out that Pink was actually just thinking one step ahead when he translated reward to purpose. In Pink’s world, purpose is just another name for intrinsic rewards. In fact, the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards is the driving force behind his entire message and the reason why he’s willfully tried to remove extrinsic rewards entirely from the equation.
So, before we blindly go along with Pink and toss out extrinsic rewards, lets first take a look at what extrinsic and intrinsic rewards really are.
These are rewards that come from outside. The most prominent extrinsic reward is money. Every paid job in the world has an extrinsic reward, be it salary, tips, commission, benefits, stock options, bribes, table scraps or some combination thereof. An argument could also be made that power (or authority) is an extrinsic reward.
These are rewards that come from within. Intrinsic rewards are things that make you feel good. The funny thing is, for some people, money is an intrinsic reward, for some people, money is a life-purpose. But for most people, a real sense of purpose comes from other things. Pink and Gladwell don’t go out of their way to explain what these things are, but through my own investigations, I’ve come to the conclusion that purpose comes from growth and I’ll explain why this simple reframing makes the question so much easier to answer.
When I say growth, I mean everything that happens in our lives that gives us a sense of accomplishment or progress. This obviously covers a lot of ground, but the list isn’t so big as to be unmanageable and, to organize, I’ve grouped the types of growth into four categories:
- Challenges Overcome
- Social Connections
Learning is what it sounds like, growth as an intellectual journey. Discovering life’s secrets, becoming more knowledgeable and more versatile as a person.
Challenges overcome is a story of victories, triumph over adversity, wresting success from a competitive world.
Social connections is a broadening of your personal social graph; knowing more people and more important people.
Order is the human desire to make sense of a seemingly random world. Order is a need for organization, for following systems, for completing tasks, checking off boxes and also for teaching/sharing your way of understanding the world with others.
Not every form of growth is equally important to every kind of person, but everyone feels good about at least one form or another.
The MIT study
Pink loves to cite the MIT study when he talks about motivation. In the MIT study, people were promised monetary rewards tied to their level of performance. If the tasks were thoughtless and menial, higher overall rewards encouraged higher performance, but if the tasks required creative problem-solving, higher rewards caused poorer performance.
There are a few possible explanations for these results:
- Rewards increased the stakes, causing stress
- Rewards belittled the task by applying a value to it (for example, with no rewards, the subject is doing the experimenter a favor, with a $5 reward, the subject is being paid $5/hour for his labor)
- The difference in value between the top reward and the ‘mediocre’ reward wasn’t enough to encourage increased performance (poor performance was also rewarded, just not as much)
My suspicion is that some combination of all three was at play during the MIT experiments, but Pink chose to focus only on the second.
So how does all of this motivation-philosophy relate to Gamification?
The results of the MIT study are irrefutable, even if the actual psychology behind the behaviors isn’t completely clear. The reality is, under certain circumstances, extrinsic rewards can be demotivating.
Fortunately, there are a few ways of dealing with this:
- Keep tasks simple
- Don’t make it about the reward
The first solution seems obvious: if extrinsic motivations work for menial tasks, give the subjects menial tasks. Of course, this isn’t always an option.
The second solution is more about context. A reward can either be an objective, or it can be a measurement of an objective. The difference is subtle, but hugely important. This solution works under the assumption that the customer or employee already finds some value in the tasks they are performing; there is a reason why they interact with the product or service in the first place. Gamification then becomes a measurement of the pre-existing intrinsic reward, to put it another way, a means of visualizing their story of growth.
A few examples:
- If the user is making social connections, show them how many connections they’ve made (Facebook does this)
- If the user is getting stuff done, cleanly package up their tasks and show them the progress (Farmville does this)
Gamification is all about understanding why your customers and employees do the things they do and using game mechanics to emphasize the rewards that work best for them.
The limitations of extrinsic rewards don’t have to be the end to your Gamification agenda. Once they are understood, they actually become a wonderful lens with which to view your customers and employees. The more you understand what motivates your users, the stronger their relationship with your company will be.