I’ve heard a number of complaints about the somewhat recent trend of giving “participation trophies” to children after they’ve lost in a competitive event. “We’re raising a generation of wimps,” goes the usual refrain. To be fair, there is some cause for concern. Failure plays a critical role in learning, so trying too hard to buffer children from the experience of failure could prevent the development of resilience and persistence. But the issue may not be about whether or not members of a losing team should get a trophy. It’s whether the winners should get one.
Rewards are everywhere today, and social media has only amplified our dependence on them. “Likes,” “comments,” and “shares” serve up dopamine boosts that function in a similar way to in-person compliments. We are motivated by the approval and validation of family, friends, coworkers and, now, any stranger who may interact with our social media selves. But it is important to understand what exactly these rewards are rewarding.
How we learn
A key study from 1998 found that elementary school children responded more positively, and performed better, during problem solving activities when they were praised not for their ability but for their hard work. The group of children praised for their ability showed less persistence and enjoyment in performing the tasks, and did not perform as well. These children also believed that their abilities were “fixed,” that is, not amenable to change, while the children praised for their hard work believed their performance could improve with increased effort.
A later study, this one looking at undergraduate students, found that praise for effort, termed process praise, resulted in significantly better academic performance than praise for ability, or person praise. Being commended for your hard work and tenacity will make you more likely to apply the same effort to future problems, no matter what they are. Being praised for simply getting an A on a test, however, says nothing of the effort that went into it. It appears there is now scientific support for the saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
This is no mark against being talented, but praising talent is merely praising an outcome, not the process that produced it. A teenager naturally gifted at softball may throw a nice fastball. She’s told after every game, “Great arm!” This athlete wants to continue being praised for her great arm, but she doesn’t necessarily know how to translate that into improved performance. She may even become anxious that she cannot live up to the performances that earned her so much adulation. Worse yet, the athlete may come to identify herself with her arm, failing to establish a sense of self-worth outside of her performance as a pitcher. This is known as contingent self-worth. Over time, this athlete may fail to work hard in practice (because, after all, she’s never been praised for working hard) and never learn the finer points of pitching because she has never received accurate feedback in this area. Let’s then say she has a bad game because of poor preparation. She may leave the game thinking, “I stink,” when the more accurate thought would be, “I didn’t prepare well enough.” The first thought is an indictment of the person, while the second is a comment on the process, specifically the need to better prepare for future games.
Rewards and productivity
It’s not just that external rewards are often ineffective in improving performance; sometimes they seem to actually hurt performance. The Overjustification Effect is the tendency for an external reward to demotivate or undermine a person’s intrinsic motivation to complete a task. This can be seen in professional athletes whose performance slips after they’ve signed a big contract. The problem with some of these athletes—or anyone whose productivity drops off after a big payday—is that their extrinsic motivation exceeds their intrinsic motivation. A similar phenomenon was observed in professional male tennis players whose athletic performance declined after they were married. This love-induced slump is thought to be an evolutionary response, as men have historically used job performance and status to attract a mate. Once you have the mate, the thinking goes, you lose the motivation. In this way, intrinsic motivation acts as a protective factor against the vagaries of life circumstances.
In the world of business, process plays second fiddle to product. Shareholders are not so much concerned with how or why a company is performing well, so long as it is performing well. But performance only tells part of the story, as a business’s success has much to do with unseen processes.
A study of Japanese technology companies found that monetary rewards negatively impacted creativity and innovation, but performance evaluations had a positive effect in these areas. This may be due to the underlying difference in the two approaches. Compensation merely rewards a positive outcome, where evaluation provides feedback—positive and negative—on ways that a process or performance can be improved.
What really motivates
Some professional athletes earn lucrative contracts and tremendous praise from fans and media—all the external validation one could ever want. But interestingly, these are the things least remembered when players leave their sport. While contemplating his impending retirement, Peyton Manning said the thing he’d miss most about playing quarterback in the NFL was the huddle. “I think any retired player would probably tell you they miss the huddle,” he said.
Hall-of-Famer Steve Young said he missed the small things: “rubbing dirt on my hands when we played in domes—dirt imported from Candlestick in Ziploc bags by our equipment guys at my behest; my unspoken connection with Jerry Rice, especially near the end zone; the deep conversations with Tim McDonald, our savvy strong safety; the satisfaction of silencing a road crowd.”
It’s notable that Manning and Young, players who reached the zenith of their sport, miss most the simple and seemingly mundane parts of their job. It is unlikely that money alone could have inspired the passion needed to lift these two players to such great heights on the field. Their intrinsic motivation was born of a genuine pleasure in playing football and of being part of a team.
The relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is complicated. While some studies show that external rewards tend to undermine one’s sense of intrinsic motivation, it is highly situational. Chances are, even if you love your job and feel intrinsically motivated to perform, there will be a problem if your company stops paying you. Motivation is best seen as a marriage between intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Even so, we know that we are more likely to enjoy tasks, persist after failure, and perform measurably better if we are focused more on the process and less on the product.
In short, keep doling out rewards, but remember that the reward may not be what keeps you motivated. Instead, working hard and enjoying the process provides the intrinsic motivation needed to keep you on top of your game.