What Can a Child’s Reward Certificate Teach Us About Motivating Employees

Brenda Clark Hamilton

Brenda Clark Hamilton

by Brenda Clark Hamilton, MA Ed., Fresh Coffee:  Professional Growth Programs?

Can giving a child a certificate as a reward for good performance actually demotivate them?  Can offering a bonus for excellent performance in employees actually demotivate them?

A study conducted on preschool children offers some interesting insights into these questions (Pink, Drive, 2011).  During the study, psychologists Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Robert Nisbett observed a classroom of preschool students to identify which ones particularly enjoyed drawing pictures.  They then divided these students into three groups.

The first group (the “if, then” reward group) was shown an attractive Good Player certificate and told that if they drew a nice picture, they then would be given such a certificate.  The second group (the “surprise-after-the-fact” group) was not told anything in advance about a possible reward, but after drawing, were surprised with a Good Player certificate.  The third group (the “no certificate” group) was not told about a certificate, nor did they receive one upon completion of their drawing.

The researchers then returned to the classroom two weeks later and asked the children to again draw a picture, but this time with Good Player certificates neither promised nor given.  They then observed, to see who was still excited about drawing.  (Yes, you may make your intelligent guesses here!)

What the researchers clearly observed was that the second and third groups (the “surprise-after-the-fact” and “no certificate” groups) both drew with as much enthusiasm as before, excitedly digging in to produce their creations.  However, the students who had previously been offered the If you draw a nice picture, then you will receive a certificate” challenge, were another story!  This group demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm than before in their picture drawing, responding with lackluster interest in the task.  Their tepid response seemed to suggest an attitude of, “Why should I draw, if I’m not getting a reward for my efforts this time?”

During my April 15 session at the IBA Human Resources Conference, we will be discussing this particular study and others like it, as we gain insights into what motivates and demotivates employees.  The results of this particular study seem to suggest that there might be a danger in offering employees (and preschoolers!) who already love their work an “if, then” bonus for performing it.  We might be better served to offer them no reward at all, or an occasional “surprise-after-the-fact” reward…and I have some suggestions for the best ways to do that, too.

Brenda Clark Hamilton, MA Ed., of Fresh Coffee:  Professional Growth Programs is a dynamic keynote speaker and workplace trainer who offers fresh perspectives in leadership, communication skills, team-building, customer service, and offering one’s best self to life, relationships, and career. Audiences describe Brenda as an energetic, engaging presenter who provides useful strategies that can be implemented in their daily lives right away. Please join us for what promises to be a lively discussion during my Carrots, Sticks, and Other Possibilities—What Motivates Employees? session at the IBA HR Conference on April 14-15 in Ankeny.  She will give many examples of ways in which each of us can become more effective in motivating those around us. 


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