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Are Rewards or Punishments Better Motivators?

Does sparing the rod spoil the employee? Is a steady stream of incentives and rewards the ticket for drawing out optimal performance? Which methods and attitudes have the best proven track record for motivating preferred performance? In an article for Harvard Business Review, Tali Sharot explains if rewards or punishment are better.

Pleasure vs. Punishment

A study at a New York state hospital wanted to increase the amount of employees who washed their hands when going into a patient’s room. At first signs with warnings about the dangers of germs were hung in relevant locations. But there was very little response until they placed screens at sanitizing stations that would give positive messages and increase their “hand-hygiene score,” which caused nearly every employee to start sanitizing their hands.

How does a short little message do so much? Neuroscience research has found that our brain releases “go” and “no go” signals in different situations. The “go” signal is released when there is something to be gained from action, like cutting that slice of chocolate cake. But the “no go” signal is released when a situation isn’t preferable, like not going into deep waters.

Basically, it’s far easier to do nothing when the situation is unfavorable. People are more likely to do something for a positive reaction than a negative one. Sharot describes another example of these principles in action:

In an experiment led by neuroscientist Marc Guitart-Masip, which I and others collaborated on, we found that volunteers were quicker to press a button (that is, to act) when we offered them a dollar (anticipating a reward) than they were to press a button to avoid losing a dollar (anticipating punishment). However, they did a better job when they were asked not to press buttons (to not act) to avoid losing a dollar than they did when we offered them a dollar in return. In the latter case they sometimes instinctively pressed the button.

This does not quite settle the reward/punishment debate, but it sheds new insight into when you might want to use one or the other as a motivator. You can view the original article here: https://hbr.org/2017/09/what-motivates-employees-more-rewards-or-punishments

About Austin J. Gruver

Austin is a Staff Writer for AITS. He has a background in professional writing from York College.

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