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Both Rewards & Punishment Kill Initiative

The Big Idea

Researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA published the results of their study last year on The demotivating effect (and unintended message) of awards – further confirming that extrinsic motivators, both punishment and reward, kill initiative, self-direction, and drive.

We all want our kids / students to show initiative, and we use a number of techniques to let them know: we take away privileges, pile on privileges, direct, lecture, scold, and occasionally, raise our voices. But at best, the research tells us, these techniques have a diminishing effect over time and at worst, result in behaviors that are in opposition to the goal.

What does work? Creating experiences in which our kids / students can connect to a meaningful vision of a future in which they can see themselves taking the lead - and then teaching them how to do it.

The Question

In working with parents at our Leadership Development Labs, one of the most common questions parents seek to have answered is "Which is better, punishment or reward? I hate to punish but I can't get my kids to do anything without rewarding them. I'm worried that they've become so focused on the rewards, they're never going to do anything without a reward. Is punishment better?" Teachers report similar challenges.

The answer, which is evident when you look at the studies and our own kids' or students' behavior, is neither. Both punishment and reward kill initiative, self direction and drive because they are both extrinsic motivators (controls).

The Research

In the workplace, we know that when managers create an environment where everyone understands the short and long term goals and where they feel empowered and in possession of the necessary skills to complete the work required to accomplish the goals, they are three times more likely to report an excellent quality of life and are six times more likely to be engaged in their work. (Marcus Buckingham, Now Discover Your Strengths).

Take Action

So how does that translate at school and at home? Research, including our primary research, shows that parents and teachers who effectively develop, model and teach leadership skills to create a shared, age appropriate perspective and vision of the future can empower kids to act with initiative and self-direction to take the lead, they’ll do the work for the intrinsic reward of contributing something of value on their way to a future they believe in.

Rather than identifying incentives that will be awarded if kids meet our expectations or defining privileges that will be lost if kids don't meet our expectations, we can collectively identify a number of activities in advance that we can all enjoy together if everyone completes their work to accomplish the goals. An example of what a parent might say is this: "If you get started early and stay focused on finishing your homework, there will be enough time left over to go for a bike ride before bedtime."

Equipping kids with the skills they need to take the lead in their own lives and work serves them well today and prepares them to engage and lead effectively through school, college, and their future life and career. Plus, it’s more productive, constructive, and enjoyable for us and for our kids - even in the midst of all the hard work and the inevitable challenges.

Further Reading

More on how to use 5 best practice leadership principles to create an environment at home where kids can be, become, and contribute their best is on the START website, n the Blog Post: Don't Wait to Teach Your Kids the Leadership Skills They Need to Thrive and Prosper and in the books START for Families and START in the Classroom.

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