The Insanity of Extrinsic Motivation

By Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of Drake Continual Improvement Network, Drake University

About 14 years ago, I was heading home from a basketball game with a friend of mine. As the car warmed up in the freezing February weather, so did our conversation. My friend worked for a major insurance company in our community and shared that coming up was a special time of year for the sales force, as the company was going to begin its annual sales push in March to increase revenue as much as possible.

I asked my friend how the company went about this, and he explained that there was a competition among salespeople to see who could make the most sales and generate the most income over the course of the month. Now, at that point in time I was just beginning my journey into the teachings of Dr. Deming; however, I knew enough to be suspicious of this strategy and I began probing with a few questions.

“So, what does the winner get for producing the most sales?”

“A trip to Hawaii,” replied my friend.

“That’s sounds pretty nice,” I said, still suspicious as to what impact this would have on the company as a whole. “Can you tell me how it plays out?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “What tends to happen is the same couple of people win the contest year after year after year.”

“Well, that’s good for them,” I replied. “What does second place earn?”

“Nothing,” he answered.

“Now tell me,” I inquired, “does this competition then produce an overall sales increase for the company?”

After a brief moment of thoughtful silence, my friend shared, “As a matter of fact, no. Interestingly it seems that since the same few people tend to win the contest year after year, the others don’t seem to try as hard, knowing there is likely no way they will win. The increase in sales by the winner is offset by the lower production by the rest of the sales team. Overall, there is rarely a net gain.”

“That’s really interesting,” I replied. On the rest of the drive home, while I didn’t share my thoughts, my mind whirred with lessons I was learning from Dr. Deming and how they applied to this situation. From my perspective, at least two of Dr. Deming’s 14 points for management had been violated:

11. Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management. It is likely the company had numerical quotas they wished to reach during the month of March and the method for achieving those goals ran counter to what Dr. Deming taught. First, there may not have been any consideration given as to whether the sales team had the capacity, as a whole, to reach a particular goal. And second, it doesn’t appear that the company considered the psychological impact the competition had on a majority of people (demotivation); something that should have been evident from past results.

12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship and eliminate the annual rating or merit system. The majority of salespeople knew, given historical results, that a small few consistently won the competition, which created a barrier to taking pride in their work. Additionally, no doubt the salespeople were ranked based on their performance, and whether made public or not, people knew how they stacked up; another demotivator.

The result of violating both of these points impacted the sales team as a whole and serves as another example of what Dr. Deming described as “Forces of Destruction:”

These forces cause humiliation, fear, self-defense, competition for gold star, high grade, high rating on the job. They lead anyone to play to win, not for fun. They crush out joy in learning, joy on the job, innovation. Extrinsic motivation (complete resignation to external pressures) gradually replaces intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity (Deming, 2018, p. 84).

In the words of Dr. Russell Ackoff, the company seemed to be working on “making the wrong things righter,” and in so doing, further exacerbated the loss of joy and meaning in work – and ultimately productivity. However, what is perhaps the most mind-boggling to me is that this practice continues year after year, not only in this company but in others as well.

My field of education is not immune to these maladies, particularly using extrinsic rewards to “motivate” children. My colleague, Dr. Randal Peters, after proofreading this article, punctuated this very point as he shared with me the following:

Your article reminded me of a recent episode of Abbott Elementary (the acclaimed comedy/mockumentary about an inner city school staff on ABC), in which a book reading contest and its “rewards” gets out of hand, leading to kids staying up all night reading, reading in the shower, and claiming to have read 25 books in a single night—not to mention teachers belittling each other and making side bets on whose class would win—all in search of achieving the goals of pizza parties and being the “reading champions” (complete with faux gold belt, a la champion boxers). In the end, the impact of the initiative (which was, ostensibly, to promote reading) was that kids began to burn out on reading and view it as a chore. Such examples are useful in illustrating the lunacy of so many management efforts that not only employ indefensible numerical quotas and ratings and “merit” approaches but, worse yet, fail to ever hold them up to scrutiny through the lens of “results.”

The two examples I have shared result in what Dr. Deming would refer to as unknown losses, including the loss of intrinsic motivation and pride and joy in one’s work. What are the long-term costs of these losses? We will likely never know, for as Dr. Deming said more than once, “The greatest losses are unknown and unknowable.”

All of our lives, we are bombarded with seemingly well-intended extrinsic motivators and, at the surface, this method for improving performance seems logical…until we take the time to read and study the work of people such as psychologist Dr. Edward Deci whose research clearly demonstrates how reliance on extrinsic motivators diminishes intrinsic motivation. To restore dignity to workers and also improve an organization’s performance, including schools, it seems like it’s (finally) time for leaders to genuinely stop and think about what they are doing and examine their work through the lens of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and his 14 Points for Management. Without this deep examination and ensuing actions aligned to Dr. Deming’s work, it is likely “insanity” (doing the same things over and over and expecting different results) and losses will be forever pervasive in the workplace.

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Deming, W.E. (2018). The new economics for industry, government, education (3rd ed.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1 thought on “The Insanity of Extrinsic Motivation”

  1. Reading this article reminded me of Daniel Pink’s work on motivation. I find it interesting that even though there is plenty of research that shows extrinsic motivation is not sustainable and can even be detrimental to an organization, we still continue to use it. I wonder if we as teachers tend to lean on extrinsic motivation because it is easier to produce – if you get a question right, you get a piece of candy or if you read a set number of books, you get a pizza party. However, with intrinsic motivation, you have to make the student see the value and care about what you are asking them to do. This takes reflective, thoughtful work. I agree with Dr. Silwell that it’s imperative that educators take time “to genuinely stop and think about what they are doing and examine their work through the lens of Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and his 14 Points for Management.”

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