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Working for pleasure may be more profitable

If you are one of the growing number of people who are practicing the Luge Strategy for daily survival – lie flat and try not to die – then you had better not be in it just for the money or you might have rather a short run.

A startling revelation is upon us: rewards may not promote better performance.

Research studies in America have shown that the quality of performance output decreases with every increase in external reward.

Think twice before accepting that additional one per cent bonu from a smiling boss. It might lower your career-saving ability to problem solve, lower your creativity, endurance and your ability to communicate.

In his book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, American writer Alfie Kohn states that if a reward such as money, praise, or winning a contest comes to be seen as the reason one is doing an activity, then that activity will be seen as less enjoyable in its own right.

Studies are now showing that intrinsic interest in a task – the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake – usually declines when someone is rewarded for doing it.

So, in this post-industrial age where creativity and innovation are the basic requirements for outlasting the Jurassics in the global marketplace, our entire system of rewarding work needs a major rethink. Rewards can be counter-productive.

A Brandeis Uni associate professor of psychology, Theresa Amabile, reported late last year her findings that the least creative projects were done by students who had contracted for rewards.

Students at Brandeis and Boston Unis were put into three groups. One was given a list of extrinsic (external) reasons for writing such as impressing teachers, making money and getting into post-grad studies, A second group was given a list of intrinsic reasons such as the enjoyment of playing with words, the satisfaction from self-expression, the opportunity to please themselves, and so on. The third group was not given any list of reasons to write.

The results, says Amabile, are clear – those students given the extrinsic reasons not only wrote less creatively than the others, but the quality of their work dropped significantly. And, writes Amabile, the more complex the activity, the more it is hurt by extrinsic reward.

Kohn suggests three explanations for this outcome.

Firstly, rewards encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to get it done quickly and to take as few risks as possible to get the prize – all anti-creativity.

Secondly, when people see themselves as controlled by a reward, they feel less autonomous and therefore less creative; the greater the sense of self-determination, the greater the creativity and innovation.

Thirdly, extrinsic rewards can erode intrinsic interest – if people see themselves as working for money, approval or competitive success, they find the tasks less pleasurable and do them less well.

The bottom line is: creativity cannot be bought – it comes only from within. I hope your Luge Strategy is giving you lots of intrinsic pleasure.

l Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants.

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